Chain-saw artisan Cactus Jack occupies a rare niche

OKEECHOBEE — The Okeechobee community has a unique artist living and meekly making gorgeous carvings in its midst whom probably not many folks know — except for his neighbors, of course, since he uses a chain saw.

“Cactus Jack” Ritter works on finishing up a fish carving of his in the space he rents for a workshop at the Eagles Club on U.S. 441 South in Taylor Creek. Photos by Okeechobee News/Chris Felker.

Jack Ritter, better known as “Cactus Jack,” has earned a modicum of fame locally as first-place winner a few years back in the Top of the Lake Art Festival in Okeechobee, but he’s also traveled a fair amount with his carvings of fish, birds, lizards and other wildlife created out of raw wood. One recent year, he even upstaged all of the hundreds of nationally known and locally famous artists who show annually at the widely popular, well-attended Amish Acres Arts & Crafts Festival in Nappanee, Ind., which last year marked its 55th year.

That time, Mr. Ritter says, he didn’t even take what he considered his best works, yet he still managed to win that Amish ribbon under the noses of celebrated local artisans.

It took Mr. Ritter a while to figure out what to make using an elongated piece of wood with roots dangling off the end that he’d acquired; a visiting friend saw a vision of Bob Marley’s face and his Rastafarian-style hair braids in the piece when he saw it, so Cactus Jack carved it. Photos by Chris Felker.

“I’d had a lot of people tell me if I could take myself there, that show is one of the top arts and crafts shows in the country. So I drove up there by myself, set up, right in the middle of Amish country, and there were 300 vendors. You take two of whatever your stuff is and leave one in the big center there.” On that display, artists put their booth number to help people looking for some particular thing.

“Then the judges come by and they judge it,” Cactus Jack continued. “Well, I didn’t want to take my best stuff out there, so I took a couple of pieces, of fish, that were nice but they weren’t my best. It was a three-day show, and at the end of the last day, I pissed off a lot of Amish people over there.” He pulled out his first-place ribbon and said he also was given a check for $1,000.

The beauty and real-life likenesses of his works, combined with the exquisitely weathered substance of the hunks of wood he uses, approach the quality of historical works you might see in a museum. Chain-saw carving is a relatively new art form (the chain saw itself has existed only since around 1830), having started to register in the popular consciousness during the 1980s, and not one that a lot of artists attempt. There are just a few groups of these artisans in the Northeast and the Pacific Northwest, so they’re surely a rare breed.

But the thing is, Cactus Jack’s been working in this art form for only eight years, while his creations resemble those of a career artist. He’s 76 and originally from a tiny town in northeast Iowa, graduated from MacPhail College of Music at the University of Minnesota, “and I never taught a day of music in my life. I had a band on the road for eight years and then I got married, and it was either my music or my wife.” After a divorce and a few other of life’s twists and turns, he became a Floridian in 1973. He spent some time as a painting contractor.

“I was one of the first ones that did the art deco hotels down in South Beach with all the wild colors, the hot colors. South Seas was the first one I did, and everybody started picking it up. I moved to Palm Beach County about 10 years ago, lived in Lake Worth.”

Then comes the part about how he got started in this line of artwork.

This sports-themed carving of Chief Osceola’s tomahawk buried in a Gator head could earn Cactus Jack a lot of money from Seminole fans; then again, Gator fans might buy them, too, for ceremonious bonfire fuel. Photos by Chris Felker. (additional photos below)

“One day I was driving out by Daytona Beach and I saw a fella carving tikis with a chainsaw. So I pulled over and saw all these nice-looking, neat fish, and I said, ‘Wow! Would you be interested in wholesaling these things?’ And he said no but gave me his card and he said: ‘If you’d like, come over. I’ll teach you how to carve these.’”

The rest, as they say, is history, but recent. “I’ve only been doing it for about eight years.

And he taught me how to do it and then I bought some stuff from him and I used mine that I had just started making and I went to some seafood festivals and nautical shows and things like that, and that’s how I got into doing this stuff.”

He learned more from others when he went to his first big show in Gatlinburg, Tenn.
“I met a bunch of carvers up there, and they were just like brothers. They took me in, and I tell ya, I learned a ton of stuff.” There, Cactus Jack also found a great source of raw material.

“That’s where I get my driftwood, out of Norris Lake, Tenn. It’s up by Knoxville, called the Norris Dam, that was a TVA project under Roosevelt, and there’s actually about 1,200 miles of shoreline. When they let the water out, it’ll drop back from the banks about 30-40 feet, and a friend and I go out in a pontoon boat and we find driftwood just laying there and we pick it up.”

He’s also gotten wood in Florida but that’s tough, he says. “There’s some beautiful, beautiful cedar roots over on the Peace River and I used to really have some nice pieces, but I got stopped twice by the Marine Patrol over there.” One friend scavenges in national forests illegally still. “But the fella that taught me how to do the carving, named Mike, he’s a Florida Cracker, and he goes out and spends a lot of time at night in these swamps and gets sunken cypress. These are hearts of the cypress tree that have been underwater for anywhere from maybe 500 to 1,000 years.” They make the most attractive pieces, says Cactus Jack, and cypress is his favorite wood.

He does use more woodworking tools than just a chain saw, of course, but he never paints the wood unless he’s creating something with a design, such as his FSU Seminole-tomahawks-the-UF Gator figurine, a piece he intends to duplicate many times over and wants to sell one year soon at football games.

Cactus Jack will use stains to cover flaws or cracks, and always applies a clear coat at the end, but says, “I like to leave the wood as it is naturally so people can actually see what the log looked like before I put my hands on it.”

Asked to explain what he attributes his talent to, Cactus Jack said, “I had no idea that I could even do this until I tried it. I guess I had it in my genes (his mother and sister paint), but … if I would’ve known that I could’ve done this, I would’ve been doing this 45 years ago and I’d be living out there with Tiger Woods. But I really thoroughly enjoy it.”

He likes it so much he won’t intentionally “compete” at shows, in keeping with how he learned the craft.

“I don’t even allow competition because if somebody wants to know something … I’ll share it with any of my competitors, and especially the young ones, because if I can help them come up and give them help that I didn’t have, then the more power to us,” Cactus Jack said.

He’s also gracious when it comes to sales, often knocking figures off his asking prices.

“Making people happy means more to me than anything else.”

Cactus Jack may be no-show this year

Former blue-ribbon winner “Cactus Jack” Ritter was unsure as recently as Thursday, Jan. 25, whether he’d be able to appear in person at this year’s Top of the Lake Art Festival.

With some assistance, though, he might be able to get some of his artworks out on display for the fest, which is set for Feb. 10-11 in conjunction with Taste of Okeechobee in Flagler Park downtown.

The thing is, he might be scheduled for back surgery that week. A dozen years ago, Cactus Jack fell off a ladder while trimming a tree, crushing two vertebrae and bringing on arthritis that limits his stamina and ability to get around. Walking any distance is problematic.

He said that he might get a few friends to help him take some works to the park for display. They are available for sale, but only from him; many are at his workshop inside the old flea market at the Eagles Club on U.S. 441 South.

Anyone looking for him, though, may email him at mycactusjack@gmail.com.

 

A few examples of Cactus Jack’s fish carvings hang on a wall inside his shop at the Eagles Club. Photos by Chris Felker.

A couple of stages of alligator-head likenesses in progress stand next to tabletop fish carvings. Mr. Ritter says he doesn’t paint most of his works, but he does apply a clear coat to preserve the carvings and make them shiny. Photos by Chris Felker.

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