LOWELL — James “Jim” Sarantakis creates art from a bench in his small kitchen. He places his tan boots on a foot rest. The weight clamps down on a long piece of dry river birch.
With a draw blade, James begins stripping the stick of its bark.
“Basically you take it in,” he says over the loud scraping noise.
James grips the stick and rotates it. Strips some more. The bark chunks fall in front of him as loose curls.
This is the early stage of a walking stick. James, 53, has been handcrafting them as a hobby for the past several years. You may have noticed the 5-foot-11 spindly man walking around downtown Lowell, usually with a glossy staff featuring the logos of the New England Patriots, Boston Celtics, and other teams. Battery-powered LED lights spiral down it.
“It gives me enjoyment. It’s like meditation,” James says of his labor of love. “It’s a part of me that I’ve done.”
And it’s something he shares with others in the city, through workshops at the Lowell Senior Center and through encounters on downtown streets.
Growing up in the Acre, James says he learned how to use tools from his late maternal grandfather, Roland Vallette. James now makes much of his tools, like the draw blade he’s using today. How-to videos on YouTube taught him the intricacies of handcrafted walking sticks. He’s since lost count of how many “Jim’s Sticks” he’s made and sold. He also donates some for different causes.
Every two or three months, James walks up and down Pawtucket Boulevard in search of sticks by the Merrimack River. In his black backpack are tools for a smoother pursuit: a tree saw, gloves, a small shovel, and trimmers.
He also carries a first aid kit, just in case. James says he considers the size and shape of a stick before taking one home. Odd-looking ones pique his interest, like an invasive bittersweet vine he keeps in his living room.
The self-taught artist says he’s been mistaken for a homeless person while out looking for sticks in wooded areas, prompting some to call the cops on him.
“The police would come and all that and I see them, with their lights flashing,” James says. “I come out and I’m talking — ‘Hey how are you doing? Interested in a walking stick?’”
James says he can’t afford a studio, so he works from his family’s third-floor apartment in the North Common Village complex. Tools are stored in a dusty milk crate under the kitchen window. A few finished walking sticks are displayed horizontally on a living room wall. In the kitchen are more, wedged between the microwave and washer. One stick is actually a weed James says can be found along the VFW Highway.
“The city, they just cut this down anyways,” he says.
James figures that, in a way, he’s doing city workers a favor by cutting it himself.
His wife, Mary, 62, smiles tightly when asked about his hobby.
“It gets him doing something,” she says. “That’s all he does.”
Mary, a cafeteria worker at Lowell High School, has shown off his art at her job. She says she sometimes helps her husband sell the sticks.
In the living room, Mary points out a witch broom with faux fall leaves twisted around it. James made it especially for her.
Steve Syverson, president of the Arts League of Lowell (of which James is a co-op member), says he doesn’t know of anyone else who does this kind of art in the community.
“Some of his sticks are very interesting. Some are just utilitarian and it all works together,” Syverson says. “He has a display of 20 sticks here in the gallery.”
Syverson describes James as very dedicated to his craft.
“He’s done a lot of work at the senior center, showing folks there how to make sticks,” he says. “He’s also done hands-on demos. He’s actively showing people how to do it.”
Back in his kitchen, James is planning the rest of his day. He has a few sticks he needs to work on for charity.
“It’s just something I enjoy,” he says. “I keep telling people, if you love art and it’s stuff you like to do, by all means don’t stop doing it. Do it.”