Ivan Denton, a pioneering Ozark woodcarver specializing in wildlife and Western scenes, was one of the most prominent artists in Arkansas.
Ivan Denton was born Marlin Ivan Denton in 1927 in Ferrells, North Carolina, to William Denton and Mary Magdalena Massey Denton. Denton never had any formal artistic training but took up carving in the 1930s because he, like most boys in the Great Depression, often made his own toys. Denton whittled wood, pine bark, soap, soft stone, and, occasionally, bone and ivory. He ran away from home in 1945 and worked as a cowboy during a branding season in Texas and New Mexico. Denton spent a year as a first mate aboard a U.S. Army transport vessel, Leapin’ Lena, in the Aleutian Islands. He then spent a few years in Alaska, working on a railroad, where he met and married registered nurse Barbara Ellen Neighbors. They subsequently had four daughters. All the while, Denton continued to carve, making about 10,000 pieces as an amateur carver.
By the 1950s, Denton was earning a living as a chicken farmer in northern Crawford County, Arkansas. Tired of this life and determined to avoid working in town, he decided to turn his lifelong hobby into a profession. Denton knew of no other people making a living in the Ozarks by carving at this time. He also realized that to be successful, he would have to communicate something to the art collector. Denton focused upon such subjects as the woods, fields, horses, braided riding gear, saddles, and anything that had to do with the life of a cowboy. Every cowboy that Denton carved matched his own features. He viewed his carvings as an extension of himself with some of his life essence in every piece.
For the rest of his life, Denton chiefly made his living as a woodcarver. In the 1960s and early 1970s, he also had cattle and horses on his 400 acres of land while occasionally breaking horses for others. Denton always carried several sawed-out carving blanks in his saddlebags to use while watching cattle, and he carved a number of pieces on horseback alongside the banks of Clear Creek Canyon. He liked to work from life whenever possible, keeping horses near him all the time. Denton measured and calibrated to accurately depict wildlife, but he also avoided too much detail in the belief that it would ruin the piece by not leaving anything for the imagination. Most of his pieces are in lindenwood because it stains in a way that duplicates bronze. Denton discovered catalpa wood in the early 1980s, and it became a favorite. His 1988 book The Art of I. Denton consists chiefly of photographs of his carvings. In the late 1980s, Denton rode a horse along old trails to California. The experience formed the heart of his second book, Old Brands and Lost Trails: Arkansas and the Great Cattle Drives.
While all of Denton’s daughters carved, the two older daughters are the best-known artists. The late Terry Denton specialized in miniatures, while Janet Denton Cordell is a respected instructor and realistic carver of women and children.
Ivan Denton lived with his wife on a farm north of Mountainburg (Crawford County). He died on June 30, 2013.
For additional information:
Denton, Ivan. The Art of I. Denton. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1988.
———. Old Brands and Lost Trails: Arkansas and the Great Cattle Drives. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1991.
National Geographic. American Mountain People. Washington DC: National Geographic Society, 1973.
Caryn E. Neumann
Miami University of Ohio