As a elementary teacher much of my work day involved helping children understand the simple rules of “civilized society” that allow us to work and play together. I begin each school year explaining that I only believe that we need on classroom rule… “Be Kind”. As long as we keep this in mind things can work pretty well.
Until recently I never really thought much of developing rules to help me define my artistic style. Art is my playground and I’m finding that a set of rules has evolved, without much thought, that define my carving styles.
My figure carving is focused on carving a series of fifty birds. My bird carvings are inspired by important early vernacular carvers like “Schtockschnitzler” Simmons and Whilhelm Schimmel of Pennsylvania and Charles Hart of Massachusetts.
I do not want to copy these artists works or styles. They are all wonderful, but as an artist I want develop my own style in their traditions. To do this I needed to mentally put myself in their places.
To do this I developed the rules. I didn’t even realize that I had done this until I had nearly a dozen carvings finished. Like my own style these rules are a work in progress. They will change and adapt as I develop skills, solve creative problems and learn of new artists. Like any artist I break the rules. These rule breakers are explained below.
I think that Charlie Hart would have liked cyanoacetate.
In no particular order…
1) I carve only birds that are a part of my life. There are dozens of bird varieties that visit my garden and neighborhood. Over the years we’ve kept flocks of ducks and chickens. We once even had a turkey. I had a strong affinity for these birds. These are the birds that I carve.
Rule Breaker – We’ve never had a flock of penguins. I do have a strong affinity for them and I’m not sure why. I do have fond memories of the penguin exhibit at the old Indianapolis zoo. It was the first exhibit inside the front gate. I can still see the penguins waddling, jumping and swimming. I also love the book Mr. Popper’s Penguins. I read it in college (I was an El. Ed. major) and it still makes me chuckle when I share it with my students. Like Charles Hart’s penguins I’m sure that Mr. Popper’s adventures were inspired by Admiral Richard Byrd’s Antarctic expeditions.
2) I use only wood, found materials, tools and finishes that would have been available to vernacular artists in the 1930s or before. The materials that go into my birds are the kinds of things that my grandfathers (or great grandfather) would have had stashed in their workshops. I remember these workshops as meccas of neat rows of jars and boxes filled with really cool, interesting and, sometimes, mysterious stuff.
I’ve an old white pine door that supplies much of my wood. It has a story, but I don’t know it. It’s covered with interesting bangs and scars (one star shaped) and I once cut through a piece of lead (a bullet?) buried deep inside. I’ve used it’s panels to brace ukulele tops and a tenor guitar top. Many birds have come from this door and there will be many more. The penguins often come from old cedar fence posts. If you rub them you can smell the cedar through the paint
Bits of wire serve as legs and mounts. Nails and brads often find their place as eyes. Bits of paper packaging make chicken combs and waddles.
The carvings are finished with the most traditional of finishes…shellac and wax. These materials are beautiful and no modern finish can replicate them. They’re also fairly safe. Wax and shellac are common food coatings.
Rule breakers – In some ways I am very impatient. Waiting for paint to dry is dificult for me. I will almost always pick up a piece and start painting before the firs tdolor is dry. The conundrum is that I’m a stickler for traditional paint. I use nothing but milk paints and oil enamels for painting boats, buildings and furniture. I love the the smell, the shine and the hard surface that traditional paints have. On my carvings I use acrylics. I didn’t want to. I was led kicking and screaming. The best of the best historic decoy guys use them. I thought that I’d try them. I really like them. The dry to the touch in 20-30 minutes and distress as well as oil and milk paints. They also clean up with water. Speedy dry times and no nasty solvents is a fair trade.
Cyanoacetate (super) glue is a wonder! Have you ever tried gluing and clamping 1/2″ curved penguin wings? I wouldn’t even begin to try. A spot of cyanoacetate and they are not only in place, but ready to carve, sand and paint. Break the point of a chicken’s tail? Pick it up, add a drop and get right back to work. Good stuff.#3) Don’t buy anything special to make and finish the birds. I build ukuleles. Setting up a luthiery shop takes a truckload of money. I was lucky enough to be awarded a grant to set up shop. I began carving because it can be done with a $20 knife, some sandpaper and a handful of inexpensive finishing supplies. I had all of this on hand. I will not buy any specialty tools or gadgets or gizmos to facilitate carving. The birds are designed to be constructed with tools on hand.
#4) Though I love reference material, I have dozens of bird books, they are never used directly to design my birds. Birds are designed and carved based on my personal memory or impression. I draw all of the time to get simple shapes that are recognizable a a specific bird. Paint schemes are simplified to indicate the bird in a simple manner.
The early bird carvings are often described as naive. Designing, carving and painting from a well informed memory seems to be an honest way to maintain a consistent level of naivety.
That’s it. Four simple rules…sometime carefully ignored…are used to develop and maintain my carving and decorating style. These rules, as is my style, is in flux. They will change over time.