The Tiki Man, as so many folks know him, is a Bolivar icon. Everyone traveling down the peninsula has seen his Tiki carvings on the side of the road. His real name is Kevin Kavanagh, and he began showing his artwork shortly after Hurricane Rita, working on the side of the road in Crystal Beach. And no, he didn’t name himself, “The Tiki Man”, it just evolved and stuck! The Tiki Man’s workshop is on the corner of Hwy 87 and Jacks Road, where you will see a wide array of carvings.Tikis are only a small part of his displayed art. There are also pelicans, mermaids, pirates and dolphins, to name a few. People stop by at all hours, but there are busy times and lulls. According to Kevin, “Holidays are busier; a lot has to do with the weather, what’s on the news. People don’t spend money when it’s raining. They usually stop by after they’ve had a cocktail or a beer, usually after lunch, looking for something to do. They think, ‘Let’s check it out, what else is there to do?’” And Kevin is always there to greet them. “Most carvers don’t want to deal with the public or interact with the public. I think it’s made me a lot more successful, than if I was a ‘backyard guy,’ working unseen, trying to sell wholesale. It’s fun to deal with the public.”
Although he keeps a good selection of his signature pieces on display, about 75% of his work these days is custom. “I love to do anything people really like, Indian faces, naked mermaids…they’re fun.” And, he does a good percentage of his work on location. People will leave pilings long, or he will carve a dead tree. “I did an interesting piece in downtown Beaumont, right by the Catholic Church. It was a 14′ carving of St. Francis, a friar tuck look, his beads hanging down, holding a bowl of seeds.”“I really like to do stuff that I think I’m not really good at yet. I’ll get a vision of something I want to do (a vision in my head), some are blurry, some haunting images, extremely complicated, something that would take a long time to do. This would be a project I could work on and not talk to anybody. Some people turn me loose, or some are particular, they don’t want big lips or they don’t want a tongue hanging out or they want the mermaid’s hair covering her breasts, ‘The Disney Version’. I get guidelines sometimes, people will come with a picture, but the fun part is when I’m allowed to go with my own visions…I love creative freedom.” He added, “I’ve been given a picture for commissioned work. It’s an Indian face inside a bearskin, a scary project, a serious challenge.”
When he evacuated for Ike, he went to the Fort Worth area and ran into a part time retailer up there who let him carve in his parking lot. Kevin interjects, “now here’s a funny story. One day, end of the day, on a really busy crossroad, this lady drives up, expensive car, evening gown, perfume costs more than I make in a month. She gets out of the car, comes face to face with me and asks me “do you do beavers?” A little taken aback, I say to myself, “don’t say something stupid,” I say, “you mean carve them?” Long story, short, so I get commissioned to do a totem pole, with Mama, Daddy and Baby Beavers. There’s so many ways to get wood, from bartering, people bring me stuff, or I buy it outright, there’s always a source. This was a higher end project that required me to call some tree companies. All the tree companies are all down here (Gulf Coast), cleaning up. A kid at Home Depot told me about a one-man saw mill, a retired guy from Minnesota who cuts up trees, acres and acres of wood he’s cut up, does it for the love of wood. So I found a 10’ red oak tree trunk, solid all the way through, he loaded it up for me; another finished project, a beaver totem pole!”
Kevin worked as a field engineer in the oil field when he first got married. Working internationally, he found himself going all over the world, sometimes at a moments notice. “Drove my wife crazy,” Kevin says. Looking for a more family oriented lifestyle, they happened to stumble upon Crystal Beach. While camping out on the beach, they wondered how they could live here and still raise a family. There was no infrastructure for work down here and they already had 3 young boys. But they made it.
Raised in an artistic environment, he explains, “I come from a long line of artists, I think it’s in my DNA. My Mom is fairly famous, developed her own style of painting, she’s a ‘degreed’ artist. Mom calls me a folk artist. ‘Gee Mom, sounds a bit racial now, because I don’t have a degree.’ Sweet Mom, in an effort to not sound condescending, explained it this way: A Folk Artist feels the love and needs to fulfill something in them, doing their own thing, without any knowledge of history or previous artists.”
“I think everybody has an artistic quality. It may sound bizarre, but I think there’s an invisible field of energy all around us that’s accessible. I don’t think it’s me, I think there are other minds coming into my mind to help me shape things. Is that crazy? Some people say I’m crazy.”
Tiki carving started out as a project with his youngest son, Nick. While on a family trip to Disney World, camping out in Florida, they saw a lot of Tikis all around the East and “enjoyed the more ancient art forms.” One day back home, Nick said, “Dad, I’m bored, let’s do something.” So they grabbed a hammer and chisel and started chiseling faces. Nick hit his hand once or twice, and it didn’t take him long to get tired of the hammer and chisel. But to Kevin, “there’s something of a Zen-like quality, really good therapy, if you will, to totally focus on one thing, it’s a form of meditation for me I guess.” Kevin had been hand sculpting for years when his wife bought him a chain saw. “Guess she thought I’d have more fun with that,” he jokes.
When asked if he works with other materials, Kevin said, “other than wood, I do have a secret desire to work with stone. I don’t have a clue where I would begin, perhaps chiseling, power tools, perhaps dynamite. I had a vision, it sounds kooky, it just hit me one day. I was on a rocky bluff, steep, and saw myself doing a herd of buffalo, some Indians on horses shooting arrows over big rocks. Maybe just the top of the buffalo, maybe the horns. Maybe I will meet a gillionaire from South Dakota, he’ll hire me or commission to sculpt and put me up in a cabin, a ‘Hopsing’ to cook for me.”
“I came real close on the Guadalupe River, by the chute, there’s a big bend in the river and a 100 foot cliff. Me and my 2 boys could’ve done it. With the right tools, maybe a face a day, not real detail, just images. One boy could be the spotter with tripods, lasers, one son in a pole truck. We’d have walkie-talkies, winch up, winch down, air compressor jack hammers…maybe one of these days.”“Recently, one day, Christian, a crazy German guy, got all excited when a huge log washed up on the 17th street jetty. He told me I needed to see it.” With the help of Mr. Macmillan, the house mover, they cut it in half, loaded it up and brought it to Kevin. He continues, “Christian, in a low guttural accent, says, ‘Now you can play!’ It’s an interesting piece; several people have tried to help identify it, probably cottonwood. We tried to imagine it being some exotic African piece. The wood had actually washed into the shipping lanes and had 5 big scallop marks from a ship’s propeller.”
When Christian stuck it in the ground, “I was compelled to make something out of it, I couldn’t get away from it, I left my paying jobs just to work on it. I don’t know the attraction, maybe it’s got ‘juju’ in it. Some things have their own energy field. We were going through those foggy days and I knew it was going to rain, total cloud cover, but I went ahead and painted on it. I knew I had a couple of hour window. All of a sudden this blue hole opens up right over me. For hours this blue hole stood out up there – did this guy punch out this giant blue hole through the ionosphere?”“I have bids on it; hopefully it’s a real deal. Every time they come by here they’ve been drinking. Their idea is to pour a big base, a base plate and drill holes to mount it. If it works out, it will be in Cobb’s Cove and will definitely be on the tour.”
The “Tour” is another of Kevin’s future projects. He wants to “make a map of all my pieces around the peninsula to promote my work and the local contractors, the people who have supported me and advertised for me, just a local thing.”
Good Luck, Tiki Man.