For half a century, rock hound and master stone artisan Kenneth Neaves has collected geologic specimens from around the High Country, and carved them into intricately detailed, precisely fit masterpieces of folk art.
“I’m just trying to make something unusual,” Neaves said.
A lifetime Lansing resident, Neaves, 72, lives on the North Fork just half a mile from his place of birth with his wife of 30 years Ruth.
Growing up near the headwaters of the New River — one of the most geologically ancient rivers in the world — Neaves was fascinated by rocks at an early age.
“When I was a kid, where you go up the river here back toward Lansing, there was a place up there had quartz crystals that high (indicates about 16 inches) setting all around the porch,” he said. “They’s mined back before WWII. They used them for wafers in radio tuners.”
“In them days, nobody paid much attention to rocks. They’s just something you banged your hoe against,” he said.
As a boy, Neaves did his share of hoeing, helping his family raise beans and corn.
He also did more than a little sawing. “I went in the woods 12 years old pulling a crosscut saw,” he said.
Neave’s family owned the east end of Phoenix Mountain, and cut timber there “as far back as I can remember,” he said. “In these river cliffs, straight up and down…you run ‘em out by hand. Down these cliffs, you can’t work a mule,” he said.
Neaves attended grade school at Healing Springs and graduated from Ashe Central High School. His first job was as at the old Ashe Memorial Hospital, where he worked as an orderly.
He tried to enlist in the Army during the Vietnam War, but with a wife and two children to support, “they culled me quick,” he said.
In his early 20s, Neaves’ boyhood fascination with rocks became a full-blown rock hound obsession, as he trekked the byways, hollers and creek bottoms of Ashe County, collecting specimens from the area’s rich geologic diversity.
“They’s little mines all over Ashe County,” Neaves said.
“Out on Idlewyld Road off (U.S. 221) they’s a copper prospect out there. The new road they built there covered it up,” he said. “There was beryl and mica mines all up new (US 16).”
“There was an iron mine just above the Lansing School. And the Ballou mines down at Crumpler bridge, that was the only place that I knowed of around that had natural lodestones that would attract iron.”
Neaves began collecting rocks in the early 1960s, but didn’t begin carving them until a few years later.
“I used to do a lot of woodcarving, and I’d sell it out at the Trading Post,” he said.
“When I started rock hunting I’d go to Spruce Pine and Franklin, and I got to cutting little ol’ cabachons,” he said. “I didn’t care too much for that, so I decided to see what the rock looked like carved.”
Neave’s friends talked him into exhibiting some of his early efforts at a gem show in Spruce Pine.”I got me a blue ribbon,” he said.
Soon, he was invited to exhibit and speak at shows around the region, and by the late 60s was commissioned by other collectors to carve their choice specimens.
“I’d use half of it, and I’d keep half of it,” he said. “That way, I built me up a stock of ‘rub’, ‘cause some of that stuff’s expensive.”
Working in a small shed no more than 60 square feet, Neaves rough-cuts each piece of stone with a wet tile saw, then details and polishes it using a Foredom Flex-Shaft rotary tool and an array of diamond tipped grinders and drills. He claims to be one of only two or three artisans in the country doing his type of stone carving.
Assembled from numerous, close-fitting pieces cut from different types of stone — some no bigger than the head of a pin — each of Neaves’ works is a triumph of patience, craft and attention to detail.
Some of them take years to complete. Suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, and with partial sight in only one eye, he is only able to work four or five hours at a time.
Made with rare materials and months or years of meticulous labor, Neave’s valuable carvings are sought by private collectors around the world. For this reason, he does not keep any of them in his home, but refers patrons to his dealers.
In Ashe County, his work can be seen at Perry’s Gold Mine in West Jefferson.