A Feel for the Brush

By Dianna Troyer

Les Tracy’s tole painting and woodworking talents benefit nonprofits in Carlin

Les Tracy sitting around his woodworking and tole paintings
Les Tracy learned tole painting in Carlin over 20 years ago. He learned woodworking from his dad and grandad.
Photos by Carollee Egbert

In his living room art studio, flowers seem to blossom almost instantly as Les Tracy brings them to life with a brush and acrylic paints.

He deftly and quickly paints delicate daisies, a few purple tulips, and red hearts on a white wall clock. He pauses, looks over his artwork, and decides to add a few green leaves here and there.

“I paint whatever I feel like, depending on my mood,” says the 73-year-old Carlin retiree. “I’ll keep what I make until I think someone needs a gift.”

Les has more time to focus on his hobbies of tole painting and woodworking since he retired from Newmont Mining Corp.’s gold mines north of town in 2006. He was a driller for 30 years and a surveyor for four more.

“Painting and woodworking always relaxed me after work,” Les says. “Especially now with all that’s going on in our country during the pandemic and staying home most of the time.”

Les often surprises his friends and family with wooden keepsake boxes, dome-top trunks, and other items he built and painted.

“He made me a beautiful wooden flower holder for my office door,” says Ella Trujillo, director of the Carlin Open Door Senior Center. “Whatever he makes, you can tell it’s done with love and care.”

Painted wooden box
Les Tracy is a woodworker known for his tole painting.

Les can be counted on to donate his decorative artisanal handicrafts to several local nonprofits for their fundraisers.

“Whenever the senior center or other organizations need to raise money, I’m happy to give whatever I have on hand,” Les says. “I’m not the only one who donates, but they always seem to like what I bring and pick it as a raffle prize.”

Ella says she counts on Les to provide a trunk or other item for the center’s annual autumn Turkey Shoot & Bingo and winter Sweetheart Bingo.

In 1987, Les took classes in Elko to learn tole painting techniques. The classes were taught by Brenda Gerber in the old Mountain City Lumber Co. building. Les learned how the decorative folk art came to America with German and English settlers, who painted flowers and other designs on common household objects, furniture, or as borders on walls.

“During the class, I realized I have a knack for art,” Les says. “The beauty of tole painting is that you can make up your own patterns.”

His favorite floral patterns are daisies and tulips, which remind him of his mom’s garden.

Tole painted wood around clock
Tole painting was common among German and English settlers.

“She always had beautiful flowers,” Les says. “It stuck with me, and I planted all kinds of flowers around my house.”

Besides tole painting flowers on his handicrafts, Les has decorated Carlin homes with his floral motifs.

“I’ve painted flowers and butterflies as borders on walls or on wooden curtain valances,” he says. “Word gets around in a small town. The painting I’ve done came about through word-of-mouth or from people meeting me at my booth during arts and craft fairs. If they have an idea, that’s great. If not, I’ll make a few suggestions.”

Les has also perfected painting faux finishes, making affordable pine look like expensive hardwood.

“I like to paint the grains of tiger maple, bird’s eye maple, oak, and other hardwoods,” he says.

Les learned about the beauty of wood and woodworking skills from his father and grandfather when he was young. He would sneak into his dad’s workshop to use the power tools. He also would stop at his grandfather’s house when he walked home from school.

“He was always waiting for me in his bib overalls in his garage, where he had his shop,” Les says. “He had a can of bent nails and told me, ‘Better get to work and straighten those nails if you want to make something.’ He noticed I had a feel for the wood and what to make with it.”

Tole painted wooden trunk
Les often makes boxes or trunks.

He says he reminisces about his dad and grandad while making boxes and trunks in his workshop behind his house. As a tribute to his grandfather, Les made a sign for his house: Home of Bent Nails and Bib Overalls.

“I like wearing bib overalls like my grandpa did,” he says.

To make the distinct dome-shaped lid for his popular trunks, Les uses a steamer to heat and shape plywood, giving it a curved contour. By steaming the wood, he can bend it onto a form, and let it dry in that form’s shape. Once a trunk is finished, it takes several more weeks to paint, allowing for drying time for different layers.

“It’s gratifying to put some beauty in the world and make people smile,” Les says.