“This will be my first time working in bronze, but I feel confident about it,” Nixon said from his home in Greensboro.
Nixon has never shied away from trying something novel, or moving somewhere new. He once crewed on a tall ship during a trans-Atlantic race and on another occasion drove in an emergency food convoy across Saharan Africa. So moving to the U.S. was one of the less complicated changes of tack that Nixon has undertaken in his 46 years.
Like so many other Irish, Nixon arrived in the U.S. in the mid 1980s. His initial landing found him living and working in Westchester County, just north of New York City.
Nixon had turned down a chance to work in his father’s construction company in Dublin. His thumbs-down to the family business followed an early departure from high school and a period of some uncertainty in his life.
“What I did want to do was prove my own real worth to myself, do my own thing,” he said. “I thought that getting a trade would be a way to both emigrate and get good work.”
Nixon opted to train as a car mechanic. By the time he qualified, he knew exactly the direction he wanted to go: west.
By 1985 Nixon was in New York, where he struck up a partnership with a Haitian immigrant. The two men bought a run-down car-repair business. The business hummed along nicely for 12 years, he said.
“We had a good thing going,” Nixon recalled.
Things were about to go even better. One particular customer was having a problem with the air conditioning in her car. Her name was Francesca and she was from Long Island.
Nixon was sympathetic and patched up the air conditioning for a nominal fee. But he reckoned Francesca was just putting off the evil day. A half-decent summer heat wave and the air conditioning would be history.
Sure enough, the weather warmed up and Francesca rolled in. Nixon gave Francesca a loan of his car for the day and some money to fill the near-empty gas tank. He rounded off the day by presenting her with a repair bill of $500 and a request for a date that would involve a night of ballroom dancing.
Within a year, and helped along by more than a few rumbas and tangos, Paul and Francesca were married. Where to settle down was the big question. Ireland was discussed; New York was considered, but so too was its expense.
Finally, North Carolina won out.
“I knew nothing of the South, but what was easy to see was that you got more for your dollar down here,” Nixon said.
Once in Greensboro, Nixon resumed working as a mechanic and also tried his hand at gardening and landscaping. Ballroom dancing continued to occupy his feet.
But his hands were about to lead him in a different career direction.
“I used to dabble with woodwork years ago and once made a replica of a model ship as part of an effort to quit smoking,” he said. “It was a square-rig Baltimore clipper. I had a thing about ships.”
And, as it would turn out, a thing about wood.
“My wife’s uncle gave me a woodworking lathe and I started to make a display case supported by spindles. My wife said that one of the spindles would make a nice walking stick for her aunt.”
Nixon put everything to one side and began to turn the length of wood into a walking stick.
“I put on a handle but then had the idea of making it a little more special,” he said.
So he carved out the shape of a leaf on the stick.
“It didn’t look half bad, so I carved another leaf, and then a vine,” he said. “It became a bigger and bigger project and it took months. It was grueling, but in the end it turned into something quite unique.”
When others caught a glimpse of Nixon’s intricately carved walking stick, they began asking the Dubliner to make more of them.
“One elderly man asked me if I could make him a stick with the face of Jesus Christ in it, which I did,” Nixon said. “I also made mold of the man’s hand, so I could give him an exactly fitting handle.”
Nixon had, by now, laid hands on his ultimate vocation.
“I always had an interest in Celtic mythology, which took hold during summer holidays in Sligo,” he said. “So the next thing I carved was a crosier with a lion’s head from the Book of Kells on it.”
Nixon’s talent was becoming clearer for more to see, but he knew there was more to learn about a hobby that was fast turning into a new way of making a living.
He enrolled in a woodcarving class at Greensboro Community College, where he met and exchanged ideas with other woodcarvers. Before too much time passed a teaching vacancy arose. Nixon got the job and has been passing on the secrets of his own skills for the last three years.
It was inevitable that Nixon would end up matching works based on Irish history and mythology with their local equivalents.
Nixon’s first large-scale commission, in every sense, was a 17-foot totem pole, which is now rising from the ground at an “international peace site” located in a Greensboro elementary school.
“I started off with a 50-foot cedar tree in the woods and remember wondering how I was going to manage it in the eight weeks I was expected to carve the totem pole.”
The fact that he did complete the job on time and in good order went a long way to cementing Nixon’s reputation for both artistic skills and a businesslike ability to get the job done.
Stories in the Greensboro papers have led to greater exposure and more commissions. Nixon is now referred to as a “local artist” and that’s fine by him.
It was also fine by the Greensboro Fire Department, which recently asked Nixon to take another step on his artistic path and sculpt a bronze depicting a firefighter rescuing two children.
Nixon has already made a model and expects to start work in the next few days on the full sculpture, which is going to cost in the region of $80,000 to make. The fire department is selling bricks for a walkway around the memorial to meet the cost of the statue.
The chairwoman of the Greensboro Firefighter Monument Committee, Tracey Simmons, said that Nixon had been chosen for the project because he was a local artist committed to his community.
“Paul is awesome and we thought his work was outstanding. And we wanted someone who cared outside of business reasons,” Simmons said.
An unveiling of the sculpture is planned for the department’s training facility in the spring of 2004. Nixon is also doing work for a couple of churches and a growing list of individual clients. What started as a hobby has become a full-time occupation, and then some.
And that’s a good thing given that he and Francesca are now the parents of an adopted daughter.
“I really like it here though I never expected to make a life quite like this,” Nixon said. “But I’m delighted to be bringing attention to my own Irish culture through wood carving. There are a lot of Scots Irish in these parts who are very interested in it.
“It’s ironic. I never liked school and didn’t have much time for teachers when I was a kid in Ireland. Now I look at myself as a teacher. Life has turned full circle.”