November 29, 2014
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Something to lean on
How one man's hobby may be his saving grace

Kevin Geremia has been down on his luck. Out of work for three years and with no unemployment benefits left, Geremia is now without a permanent home.

But Geremia’s mother, Patricia Pirolli, is confident her son has found a way to climb out of the hole he’s in…Vines.

Geremia, who worked in construction for 10 years, was laid off in 2008. Before that, Geremia was working an Amtrak project in Olneyville in 2007 and recalls how flaggers on the track would warn the workers when an Acela train was coming, but a flagger’s job also entailed a lot of sitting and waiting. To pass the time, the flaggers would cut down some of the many bittersweet vines growing along the tracks and carve them into walking sticks. Geremia noticed their hobby and asked about it.

He began cutting down vines himself.

“On my first attempt,” said Geremia, “I stripped the bark right way and let it dry out, but it split down the middle.”

Geremia learned to let the vine dry out a bit before he stripped the bark. Over time, he learned what were the best tools to use for his project: Wire brushes to strip the bark; razor knives for the carving; belt sanders for smoothing; and files for detailing.

Despite the first attempt, Geremia quickly figured out how to make beautifully carved walking sticks, shillelaghs and canes. His third attempt, a Hells Angels’ “Death Skull” atop a cane, took him roughly 40 hours.

Geremia has made about 40 walking sticks and has plans for many more. Already, he’s carved canes of the Marine Corps Bull Dog, Bald Eagles, P.O.W. and American flags, entwined serpents, silhouettes, shamrocks and more.

Geremia said the designs just come to him. Sometimes his friends inspire him. Other times he draws inspiration from the vine itself, using the knots and bends within the wood to as part of his design.

“It just comes to me,” he said.

Geremia adds less natural things to his designs, like porcelain and glass doorknobs and brass accents. For the fangs of his serpents, he filed down tines from plastic forks and drilled holes to glue them in place.

“Everything I’ve ever tried, I’ve figured out a way to do it,” he smiled.

Geremia collects the bittersweet vines mainly in the Coventry area, but they grow throughout the state. The vines are green and pliable and produce red berries when alive, but harden and brown when cut and left to dry.

Geremia said the sticks usually take him about ten hours from start to finish, but the times can vary greatly.

“Each one comes out different,” he said.

When Geremia first began, he gave them away to friends or has offered them as fundraising items for a number of causes but now he wants to use them for his own sake.

“People have been telling me I’m wasting my time, and I could make some money with this,” he said.

One friend told him about a cane sold to an antique dealer for $700. The friend said it was similar to the ones Geremia crafted, but not as detailed. The antique dealer put the cane on eBay and sold it for $36,000.

But there is not much chance of Geremia getting that kind returns on his work…at least not while he is alive. As good as the carving is, it is much older canes, made by “folk artists” over a hundred years ago, that fetch those astounding prices. Although not made of bittersweet vine, a folk sculpture made from a tangle of roots was appraised for about $50,000 on the "Antiques Roadshow" recently. But it was particularly intricate and exceptionally well preserved for its estimated 100 years of age.

Another tangle of roots appeared on the "Roadshow" several years, this one done by a politician that contained a large measure of satire. It was made about 100 years ago was quoted at $15,000 to $20,000. The rarity of the natural shape of those root carving contribute a great deal to the value and appeal. That kind of folk art appeals to several types of collectors; including furniture, antique, and outsider art as well as what is inelegantly referred to as “hobo” art. The value is based on how many people want it and how much they are willing to pay for it.

Those kind of collectors, who have plenty of money, don’t even want to look at contemporary stuff, and it’s not likely that Geremia wants to die and wait 100 years to fetch those five-figure prices. A fair return on the hours he invests in making his canes is a just and attainable goal for Geremia’s carving. With his talent, it’s not likely that anyone will sell an original “Geremia” for less than they paid it for. You buy it because you want to keep it — and that’s what you call “collecting”

Geremia has already put a few of his own creations on eBay to try his luck. He’s gotten offers from friends and acquaintances, too, for up to $300 per cane. He hopes to sell some of the smaller canes for around $75 to $200, but the larger showpieces, like the five-foot intertwining snakes would ideally sell for around $700. He also plans to take custom orders, and can recreate a design by looking at an image of whatever the customer desires. In the hope that his canes become popular, he brands each with his initials, KWG, and a number.

“I don’t know where it comes from,” said Pirolli of her son’s talent.

Like all folk artists worthy of the name, Geremia has never taken any classes in art, sculpture or design.

“It’s a gift,” said Pirolli.

Pirolli said her son’s artistic talent will help him to get back on his feet after losing everything. She said she always knew her son had unique abilities, but never knew how creative he could be. From an early age, Geremia was customizing his bicycles, and at age 16, he began reconditioning a car.

“He’s always been creative,” she said, “But this is strictly an art. It’s an absolute gift.”

Geremia is now looking to make larger projects, like headboards, out of vines. But for now, he’s sticking to the canes and shillelaghs, and hopes that in these tough times they’ll provide him with something sturdy to lean on.

To order a custom walking stick or cane, or to learn about the selection currently available, contact Kevin Geremia at 548-4520.


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