Main | Bruce Burk: Legendary Carver »

Mr. IWCA: Bob Sutton

by Bill Einsig

 The genius of Bob Sutton springs from his deep understanding of the carving art form and the artists who pursue it. Combined with a Rube Goldberg attitude and the tenacity of a pit bull, Sutton always has a "new" idea to solve any problem. And, if he thinks you can help him with it, he'll give you a call. Just turn the TV off, get a cup of coffee, and let your spouse know it's Bob. You'll be awhile, and you'll enjoy it.

  Bobby Sutton

Bobby Sutton is a familiar and welcome face at IWCA carving shows. Just about every carver who has sharpened a knife has a story about the colorful, tenacious, and creative Sutton who pulls few punches and tells you exactly what you need to know.

In fact, the more you learn about Sutton's background, the more you see that reflection in the Sutton who attends your show, critiques your bird, or calls to discuss his latest idea. 


An early Bob Sutton palm frond sprig.
  Sutton was one of thousands of Arkie families who left Arkansas in the '40s to find work in California during the boom in industry caused by World War II. His father was a farmer and truck driver in Arkansas but simply couldn't earn what his family needed. So, in 1942, Sutton's dad pulled up stakes in Arkansas and moved to the West Coast where he found work as a welder.


Sutton entered high school and worked an extra four hours each day, as well as summers, building B-17s and Victory Ships in the shipyards. When Sutton graduated in 1945, the war was over. He tried to enlist but was classified 4-F due to a chronic physical problem.

Still, Sutton wanted to get into the post-war effort. Tons of military material and thousands of soldiers had to be brought home at the end of the war. Sutton joined the Merchant Marines and set off on a world-wide tour ferrying materials and personnel.

Sutton says one of his merchant marine friends, who served during the war, was torpedoed three times in succession. He was rescued when his first ship was torpedoed and was wrapped in towels warming in the mess hall with a cup of coffee when the rescuing ship was also torpedoed. The friend found himself again in the water with no towels but with the coffee cup still clutched in his hand. He was soon rescued only to have that ship torpedoed so that he had to be rescued once again. Sutton says the work and sacrifices of the merchant service during WWII are often overlooked.


Bob Sutton palm frond goose.
In 1955, Sutton started work with the Southern Pacific Railroad. He became a fireman and worked for the railroad for 40 years. He refused to take the exam for engineer preferring the job of looking over the engineer's shoulder and filling in under supervision when needed. Bob says most of his work was either in the yard or on short, local runs near Los Angeles in southern California.


Sutton says the Southern Pacific's longest run was between Seattle and New Orleans hauling mostly grain for export. It wasn't long till Sutton's creative make-do attitude came up with another way to make a buck.

He noticed that piles of grain were lost from cars in the rail yards. The railroad wasn't interested in recouping these "small" losses, but Sutton realized the losses were free to claim. So, after work, Sutton would shovel and bag as much as two or three tons of spilt grain and take it home where he and his dad built and grain cleaning operation. They would empty the bags, clean the grain, and re-bag or pelletize it for resale. Sutton obviously inherited, and learned, his dad's creative intelligence and soon learned there was a way to overcome almost any problem.


Sutton was a favorite and talented auctioneer at carving shows in the 1980s. He was well known for his humor and clear ringing voice that could make crowds want to buy.
Hefting and processing up to four tons of grain every day meant Sutton developed outstanding strength in his arms and shoulders. It became an easy task to load a 150-pound bag of grain to his shoulder and run with it. In the 1950's he excelled at arm wrestling and developed a reputation as one who was tough to beat.


In addition to the feed business operating out of his family's garage, Sutton also worked in the scrap metal business. At other times, he built wheels for racing sulkies, repaired sulkies, worked as a plumber and mechanic, ran a service station, and worked with his dad who invented the brake for wheelchairs.

To a large extent, Sutton inherited the attitude of his father's generation. A generation of common folks who survived the Great Depression by clawing, scratching, and working, in ways that many of us would no longer consider, to support families and lead their kids to a better life.

It's that attitude of "seeing and fixing" problems that still drives Sutton today. Sutton sees opportunities where others see insurmountable problems, and he'll always come up with a work-around just when you need it.


When you see Sutton at shows these days, he's always wrapped in conversation helping another carver, discussing one of several
In the 1980s, when independent carving shows each determined it was their God-given right to develop their own rules for their show and couldn't see the advantage through their pride-clouded eyes of having common rules across shows so that entries could travel across the nation, it was Sutton who guided the development of IWCA and its committees to develop and recommend a common set of rules for clubs who were not too stubborn to accept them.


As a result of Sutton's vision, affiliated shows enjoy an influx of mail-in entries from carvers who know their entries will be accepted and judged according to a common set of rules. All IWCA shows benefit from these common rules, and Bob Sutton, as the founding father of IWCA, deserves much of the credit for his outside-the-box thinking and tenacity to make things happen.

Have you met and chatted with Bob Sutton? If so, savor the memory. He's one of the greats.

For a more intimate profile of Bob Sutton, read Bobby Sutton by Byrn and JoAnne Watson, Wildfowl Carving Magazine, Spring 2000, p. 11.