Made in Sarasota

By staff June 1, 2004

When you visit K.C. Higgins and his girlfriend, JoAnn Westbrook, it's hard to get past the front door. That's not because they aren't hospitable; with their affability and teenage-sweetheart demeanor around each other, the pair is a pleasure to visit. It's because their front door, adorned with carved wooden vines and luscious bunches of grapes, is too interesting to walk past without closer inspection.

Higgins is a relief wood carver and sculptor who specializes in carved doors and panels. The clusters of grapes and vines are popular with clients looking for an old-world touch for their wine cellars, but Higgins especially enjoys carving tropical scenes and motifs. One set of mahogany double doors he recently carved for a Bradenton couple, for example, features luxuriant sprays of ferns, elephant ears, palms and kudzu on one side; the other side is a testament to bamboo forest that entranced the couple during a Hawaiian vacation. To evoke that memory, Higgins recreated the graceful cylinders of bamboo shoots, but expertly layered them to give the illusion of walking into the grove.

Born in Harrisburg, Pa. and raised in Kenosha, Wis., by his FBI agent father and homemaker mother, Higgins made his first sculpture at the age of four: a clay horse's head that he set out on a step, which was promptly squashed underfoot by a careless grown-up. Higgins learned to sail at 12, and, at 25, bought a boat and sailed it down the Mississippi until he ended up in New Orleans, where he worked as a yacht delivery captain. Here, he collected scrap pieces of teak and mahogany and taught himself how to carve relief work in his spare time.

In 1983, a septuagenarian master wood carver named Vero Benvenuto Puccio arranged a job for Higgins carving a boat figurehead; he said he would determine the price of the work after he saw what Higgins could do.

"The owner of the boat said, 'How much should I pay?'" recalls Higgins, "and Vero said, 'Five.' I said, '$500?' Vero said, 'No, $5,000.' That was my first big job."

Higgins supplemented his figurehead carving income by taking jobs delivering boats around the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. He was on his way up the east coast to sell his boat when he took a break in Florida.

"I just happened to stop in at Sarasota and I never left," he says.

That was when he met Westbrook, walking her dog at Marina Jack. Westbrook-a former dance teacher, nursing home administrator, and author of Do You Know Where Your Parents Are?, a book about elder care-proved a powerful antidote to the wandering life. Higgins got a job here renting jet skis, and later developed the contacts to begin restoring antiques for dealers around town. For the past 17 years, he's been living with Westbrook in the Sarasota house beside the one in which she grew up, three doors down from the one in which her daughter and the couple's seven-year-old granddaughter live.

Now, Higgins enjoys making stone and wooden sculptures, tinkering on his piano and composing poetry for his granddaughter. But he spends the bulk of his days carving wooden panels to set into doors for clients all over the country. He works in his garage, where panels of mahogany marked with precise depth measurements and the outlines of a sketch lean against a wall, and a pair of cats the couple adopted wander around.

The carved panels start at about $2,000 per side. Cost varies based on the difficulty of the wood and the complexity of the design. A set of double-sided double doors in bass-wood costs around $7,600.

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