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I’ve loved being 50 Little Birds. I’ve loved maintaining 50 Little Birds. It’s time for a change. There are many great new things happening here and I can’t wait to share, but I’ll be sharing as myself, G.B. (Geoff) Davis. Come and visit my new site. Sign up for newsletters. Please move along with us!

(This site will be maintained for most of the next year — and perhaps beyond. Relevant content will be duplicated on the new website.)

 

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Swimming Penguin

_MG_0211Swimming Penguin – 17″l x 9″w x 9 1/4″ t – White Pine, Leather, Found Wood, Steel, Composite Croquet Ball – Available Email Here.

A recent customer wrote to me:

I love your style, a perfect combination of texture, color, and form, that looks and feels gently worn, yet alive.

“Gently worn, yet alive” is exactly what I’m going for. My birds tell a story. The first story in the story of my experience with the bird. The second story is what I put into the bird through form, color and texture. The third story is the story revealed to the viewer what they hold a bird or whale or goat in their hand.

I study color and texture an experiment in ways to convey them in my work. The following pieces are from my collection of stuff and are textures that I cherish and work towards re-creating. These were created by the master of distressed and interesting surfaces — Time.

Tfullsizeoutput_8a7his is the tool box that I take to demonstrations. I bought it for the finish. It’s a simple well worn homemade plywood box with steel hasps and corners. It had a disintegrating wet formed leather handle that I recovered.

I love the pale green alligatored paint with subtle white splatter. Bare wood The circle is from my own shellac can. The single light blue drop is mine as well.

fullsizeoutput_8a8This is another side of the same box. I stenciled “50 Little Birds” across the side. One this side there are two layers of bright yellow-green paint. The top coat has alligatored into fine grains. The paint is worn to wood following the grain of the plywood veneer. The hardware is painted as well.
This is the top of the wooden stool that I sit on at my bench. It was left behind when a co-worker left the school where I was teaching. He always knew that I fullsizeoutput_8a9liked it and I suspect it was left on purpose.

It was once painted red over white and then alligatored. Decades of rear ends have worn much of it to bare wood that has been rubbed smooth. It has some splatter — black spot can be seen here.

fullsizeoutput_8a6This is one of the many white cedar lobster bouys that I picked up as a kid. Lobster bouys were so much more substantial and interesting when they were made of wood. These were made from massive blocks of wood and were turned on a lathe. This wasn’t fancy work and the gouge marks are still visible.

This bouy was primed in orange — often whatever house paint that could be aquired. The red with a green stripe indicate which fisherman owned the bouy. An identical one was displayed on the boat. I love these three colors together. I also love that the red exposed beneath the failing green paint has not faded. It’s also important to note that most of the red paint is missing from the surfaces that would make the most contact.

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Years ago i got a bargain on a huge poplar dresser and cabinet. It’s almost 5′ tall and 6′ long. It contain 8 drawers (Three of which are larger than most dressers) and a hanging locker. It was so large that we had to remove the cap on my full sized pickup to load it.

It was to be put in my (then) upstairs studio — but it could not negotiate the turn in the stairs. It now sits in our living room with the TV atop.

It’s been painting — at least — three times. It has a few stories to tell and I’ve can’t make sense of them.

IMG_0810Looking at the door, It is clear that the green paint is under the grained red paint. This is counter to what would be expected. In general faux grained finishes pre-date “institutional” green. The hardware is painted with both colors indicating that there is — probably — at least another color (the original color) underneath.

Another mystery is the row of orange dots under each bin pull/drawer pull. They were painted when the piece was “institutional” green.

These are the finishes that I seek out. These are the finishes that I collect. These are the finishes I strive to re-create.

I first published this post a year ago. It was a bird that I had wanted to see for years. It found a home and will be on its way to Pennsylvania tonight. I’ve not carved little birds much lately….but I’ve plans for a significant project made of many little birds. Stay tuned.

The Blackburnian warbler has been suggested as a carving subject many times. A quick glance at any field guide confirms that it is a great candidate. The contrast between the blacks and yellows and oranges makes this bird one of North America’s most beautiful warblers.

The striking paintings in my Sibley and Peterson field guides moved me, but until I have seen or heard or experienced a bird it is out-of-bounds to carve.

That all changed on June 22, 2014. Had just completed a very difficult carry around Raquette Falls in the Adirondacks. I expected to camp at the falls, but drawing from some deep reservoir — that I would get to know better over the next few weeks — I loaded my boat and pushed on to a lean-to near Stony Creek.

Here I collapsed. I unloaded my gear into the lean-to and pulled the boat ashore. I sat amongst the gear and fell into a deep sleep.

I awoke to the sound of a bird sifting through the leaf litter in front of the lean-to. I turned my head to see a Blackburnian Warbler nearby. Without disturbing him I watched for several minutes as he searched for a late afternoon meal.

This bird is carved from white pine, has brass tack eyes and steel wire legs. The base is made from antique wood reclaimed from crates and a white birch twig gathered on my canoe trip.  4 1/2″ l x 3″ w x 5 1/4″ t.

There have been some big changes in the way that I think about my work. My birds and whales and my put-toys are gaining notice in new and exciting markets. In response to all of this new attention I’m thinking and writing about my work. In doing this I stumbled across this piece that I wrote in the summer of 2015. I had been back from my life-changing canoe trip for about a year and was beginning to see what it meant for my work. This piece holds true today. This is what I do — and with little change — the way that I think about what I do. I encourage your comments and thoughts.

The only change that I have made is to update photographs with new work.

Many more big changes to come.

_MG_0075I carved very little over the last year. The year was spent preparing for a six week solo canoe expedition on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. A year ago I was on the trail — somewhere  in Northern Vermont. The purpose of the trip was to inform and inspire many of the carvings that I’m working on now.

It’s great to be carving again. My canoe trip has inspired a series of fifty birds. I’ve completed the first dozen. It is my best work. I’ve returned to the work with a fresh approach and a new eye.

I’ve written about how I carve birds many times. Since I’ve returned from my canoe trip and have begun to carve the birds of the Northern Forest my work has gained new interest. It’s time to revisit this again.

1) My Carvings Tell a Story

My carvings — with a very few exceptions — represent a personal experience with the subject. Until I have my own story a bird is off limits. It is not unusual for me to seek new birds so that I my carve them and share the stories.

2) There are Exceptions – But They Still Have a Story

I carve things other than birds — whales, polar bears, boats — that stir me. There is still a story and personal connection, but I’d be lying if I told you about my direct experiences with sperm whales and narwhals. I spent a good deal of my childhood in coastal New England. These stories are about visiting sailing ships and prowling around backwater wharves.

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3) My Inspirations

I began carving birds to connect with my Pennsylvania German heritage and my first influences were the great folk carvers of southeastern Pennsylvania like Schimmel and ”Schtockschnitzler” Simmons.

Then I discovered the Massachusetts folk carvers. These were decoy carvers that turned to the tourist trade in the summer to make their living. The most famous of these, Elmer Crowell and Charles Hart, have produced carvings that eagerly sought by collectors and have set auction records.

Sometime early in the last century bird carvers began to enter their works into competitions. These competitions had strict rules and emphasized realism. Though this work is fascinating and highly skilled, the charm and warmth of the earlier work was lost.

My work is deeply rooted in the work of these Schimmel, Simmons, Crowell and Hart. I don’t seek to re-created or replicate their work. I’ve strived to maintain a informality that invites folks to pick up and experience my work.

4) Rooted in History

My grandfather was a practical woodworker. He built for the people around him — bird houses, furniture, dollhouses, toys and puzzles — and his work was evident in his community. When we would visit I was always drawn to his woodshop. It seemed to be frozen in time. His tools had been new in the 1930s and 1940s. His shelves were lined with cigar boxes, tins, crates and jars filled with hardware and screws and nails.

Grandpa’s shop serves as a filter to keep my work grounded in the traditions of the early 20th century. If a material wasn’t available to him before WWII. It’s not available to me. You won’t find plated hardware or Phillips head screws in my work. Copper and brass nails and little bits of bailing wire are all as I would have found them in Grandpa’s shop.IMG_0548

5) Texture is Everything

My work is often mistaken as old work. That’s not my intention — but it indicates that I’m on the right track. I love surface textures that indicate age and use and love. When I began carving and painting birds I desired a finish that invited folks to pick them up. To rub them.

I learned, when I was building period furniture, that badly aged and distressed tables and cabinets looked cheap and insincere. When I distressed furniture I developed a scenario to guide my work. I would picture the piece in use and carefully develop marks in the wood and finish to indicate authentic use.

I do the same with my carvings. Areas of wear — tails, bills, wingtips — show wear to reveal underpainting. There are small dings and dents where the birds might come into contact with another object. Paint may be cracked where metal pieces have flexed. These marks are planned and add beauty to each piece.

Every carving is also finished with a shellac and wax. These traditional finishes produce a depth and luster like no other.

fullsizeoutput_87e6) I Carve

Many carvers don’t carve. Most use power rotary tools to remove wood. I even know “carvers” that use reproducing machines to power carve several copies of an original at a time.

I’m a carver. I carve every bird one-at-a-time using knives, gouges and rasps.

7) Vintage Wood and Tinplate and Paper 

Wood oxidizes over time. With this oxidation it changes color and becomes darker. Spent my childhood summer in a home with no almost finished surfaces on the interior. The pine and spruces walls and ceiling were oxidized to a beautiful coffee brown. Freshly cut pine and spruce is nearly white.

No stain can reproduce the look of old wood.

Any exposed surfaces on my carvings is old wood. Old wood gleaned from broken furniture, antique crates and cigar boxes.
I often use tin plated steel (tinplate) to form wings, nails and beaks. Modern tinplate looks….new. There are chemicals that may be used to produce patina and age, but I use old tin sourced from vintage cigar boxes, cracker boxes and candy packaging. It’s not unusual to find lithograph lettering or artwork on the underside of formed metal parts.

Wood rates and cigar boxes often have interesting labels. Every effort is made maintain these bits of paper on the finished work.

Each piece is also signed, numbered and labelled.

8) Croquet Balls

I love the natural patina and markings on old composite (wood and glue) and solid wood croquet balls. Croquet balls are evident in much of my work.

9) Place

Place is an important theme in my work. My materials often reflect this. Most pieces are carved from white pine, the traditional New England carving wood. Natural materials — acorn caps, pine cones and twigs — often come from the same region as the subject. Pieces that are inspired by last year’s canoe trip are often mounted on birch twigs that I brought back with me.

drawings10) Drawing

Drawing is an essential part to my carvings. In fact, I spend much more time drawing than I do in the direct production of birds.

It is my desire to produce a bird that easily recognizable — as a specific species and gender — is a simplified form. This stylization comes from drawing — and re-drawing — the bird until it is reduced to essential and simplest terms.

I begin by drawing from source material.  Over a period of a few days I move away from source material and draw from memory. It is from memory that I produce my carving patterns and color schemes.

Patterns are only used for a few birds before I begin to re-work them. This ensures that each piece is unique and that my work continues to evolve.

A Fight to the Death – The Giant Squid and a Sperm Whale

24″t x 25″l x 19″w

White Pine, Cherry, Composite, Brass, Copper, Steel, Glass, Leather

Available here.

Read the story here.

I grew up with my nose in books. I grew up dreaming of ships and the sea and knots and boatbuilding. I grew up summering in Maine. This all came together in a book published by Yankee Magazine‘s, Yankees Under Sail. I pored over this book day and night. My grandfather had a copy, too and I pored over his when visiting.

There were a few illustrations that made such a strong impression on me. Those impressions are so strong that they still rise to the surface from time-to-time.

Recently I carved a sea-serpent — a serpent with ties to my Indiana town — but in my head I was carving those serpents from the pages of Yankees Under Sail.

About a year ago I drew this in one of my ever-present Moleskin notebooks.

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This drawing festered in my brain until I created this.

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A friend, Kitty Fenstermaker, asked where this idea began. It took me about 30 seconds to pinpoint the beginnings of this artwork. It was this illustration from Yankees Under Sail.

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One never knows where these things will lead. I’ve opened the door. I suspect that there will be more giant squids and sperm whales in the future.

 

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