Folk artist tells his stories using wood carvings. Let your eyes listen.

Spend any time with J.J. Moore and his carving knife and he’ll create a great story.

Not the traditional gabfest, though he admits he can talk for hours.

Moore does most of his talking with his wood carvings. In rough, chunky figures he tells little-known pieces of African American history. He pronounces his battle-hewed faith and how it rescued him while growing up in Philly. In layers of Tupelo wood, paint and text he creates messages for the young people he meets whom he fears have given up on tomorrows.

Moore, 67, learned the hobby as a child and created pieces through his years. Now that he’s retired, he has more time to talk and has found an audience.

A collection of his pieces are on display at a storefront in Military Circle mall and at the Jordan-Newby library branch, both in Norfolk.

In April, his work will be included in the “Arts at The First” exhibition at First Baptist Church of Hampton.

He said he was once told that his folk art was a blessing, “and that I needed to pursue that,” Moore remembered recently in his Norfolk home.

He shrugged and said: “I just do stories out of wood.”

Moore’s young years in Philadelphia can be carved into blocks of family and faith.

“Just like Will Smith, ‘In West Philadelphia, I was born and raised,’ ” Moore sang as Smith did in the intro to the popular television show, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”

Streets around Moore’s house in the 1950s and ’60s weren’t kind to young boys. Moore had to pass through the territory of a street gang on his way to school and members tackled him almost daily for his lunch money. By the time he was 13, he joined a rival gang for protection.

A couple of times he got in trouble with the police for fights. But his family and his minister diverted his energies into working at a soda fountain and doing odd jobs at the church.

He points to several of his carvings when he talks about those days. One in particular stands out.

Wood carver J.J. Moore holds one of his favorite pieces Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019, at his Norfolk home.
Wood carver J.J. Moore holds one of his favorite pieces Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019, at his Norfolk home. (Stephen Katz)

Moore calls it “My Mother Prayed for Me.” In it, his mother is wearing a dress with yellow polka dots that match her earrings. Her hands are clasped high in prayer as she stands behind an unaware Moore who is about to bolt out of the door.

Surrounding the door are sketches of a young man sleeping, eating, playing basketball and walking a dog.

“My mother prayed for me every time I walked out the door,” Moore said. “Besides my mom, my aunts prayed for me. Every time someone prays over you, it gives you strength.”

One of the best words Moore heard from the streets of Philly was to check out Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., for college. Moore did in the fall of 1970.

Even though a friend told him the school had some of the best swimming facilities for a historically black college, Moore said he never found a pool.

“Just a fountain people might get drunk and fall into,” Moore said. He still loved the school.

He said professors took a personal interest in students and got on them like parents.

“The faculty believed in me and that belief helped me go forward.”

Moore was a health and physical education major and his time at Shaw prepared him for a stint in the Navy and more than 40 years of managing recreation programs.

Moore transferred to Naval Air Station Oceana in the early 1990s, married and settled in Norfolk after retiring.

He now has a series of carvings highlighting Norfolk State University, his wife’s alma mater, and his beloved Shaw.

He pulls black-and-white photos from online archives to honor people like the late Chester Davis, a venerated radio personality for Shaw, and landmarks.

Woodcarver J.J. Moore looks at a piece he created of the Shaw University Law School at his Norfolk home on Feb. 5, 2019.
Woodcarver J.J. Moore looks at a piece he created of the Shaw University Law School at his Norfolk home on Feb. 5, 2019. (Kaitlin McKeown)

One of Moore’s larger projects is of Shaw University’s law school that existed from 1888 to 1916.

Moore’s version is bright blue with long, vertical windows in its classrooms and two-story entrance hall. He’s glued trees in bloom on its lawn.

According to Shaw’s history, the law school was the only black one to teach legal shorthand. The school recognized that discrimination might keep even the sharpest graduate from ever practicing law; shorthand would allow them to work as legal assistants or receptionists.

Moore and his carving knife don’t want these people or places to be forgotten.

“We have to tell these stories because nobody else is going to tell them.”

Wood carver J.J. Moore places figures carved from tupelo wood around a piece he titled "Makes NO SENSE," which tells the story of senseless gun violence Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019, at his Norfolk home.
Wood carver J.J. Moore places figures carved from tupelo wood around a piece he titled “Makes NO SENSE,” which tells the story of senseless gun violence Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019, at his Norfolk home. (Stephen Katz)

Moore continues his community work, including teaching arts and crafts to an after-school group at his local library.

He also works with young people at local juvenile detention centers and with a chess club that teaches critical thinking through the game.

Moore likes to work with young people because adults took time to work with him.

“You have to give back,” he said.

Plus, Moore was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer two years ago.

Life is precious. He wants young kids to know that.

One of his current and most important dioramas represents a block on Any Street, U.S.A.

It has a Chinese restaurant, convenience store, ABC store and a shotgun house with a wide stoop.

Moore modeled it after what he’s read in the papers and seen on the news: miniature block figures walk and sit along the street, immune to a shooting that just occurred. A lone dog, without an owner, leaps on the walk. Moore plans to create a sidewalk memorial, one of those with faded balloons and stuffed animals.

“It will show the cycle that there was just a shooting two weeks before,” Moore said. “I will show this to the kids; I want them to know that the next time it might be them. All of this violence, it makes no sense. That’s the title: ‘Makes No Sense,” he said. He opened a clear bag that he keeps little people he’s already carved. Moore places one, a teen stretched out, dead, on the sidewalk.

“This just makes no sense,” he repeated. “That’s the story.”

If you go

“Arts at the First,” exhibition April 6-27 at First Baptist Church of Hampton, 229 N. King St., Hampton

Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sat., 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Free and open to the public

Visit www.thefbch.org for more information.

​Denise M. Watson, 757-446-2504, denise.watson@pilotonline.com

Original Story HERE