Birds from Wood, Bird's Illustrated
When I moved to West Cornwall to follow my passion for birding and bird photography I knew that the area had previously attracted many people with a great interest in art. The sun, sand, sea and surf have all served to provide inspiration for painters, potters and sculptors as well as the hundreds of thousands of tourists who flock to the region every summer. So, when I bought a smallholding with my wife Sarah in a rural part of the county I shouldn’t have been surprised to find myself living next to an artist but the fact that he made a living by carving birds was a wonderful piece of fate.
With the name, Mike Wood, you may wonder what else he could have become; well he could still be a builder, welder or mill worker, all positions he has held at the beginning of his working life in Mossley and Saddleworth. In fact if it wasn’t for his working in a mill he might never have made the bold step into professional carving since it was during that time that his health became affected by the chemicals used in the milling process. Those were the days before the large financial settlements and compensation culture, so Mike left with nothing.
On the positive side Mike had always had a fascination for birds and his father had passed on an interest in carving. Whilst Mike had been at work he started to combine these two activities and his colleagues were sufficiently impressed to buy his carvings on a fairly regular basis, spurred on he had also enrolled the services of a gallery in the Lake District from where he made contact with an American dealer. Bird carving is much bigger business in America than on our side of the Atlantic but two outlets weren’t going to provide enough income to support his wife and children.
To increase his range of galleries and shops he spent many of his formative years carving decoy ducks for the shooting, hunting and fishing fraternity; a task which today gives him less satisfaction partly because of the lack of detail required in them. Being a professional bird carver hasn’t always allowed Mike to fulfil his own ambitions, quite often he would prefer to take on large projects such as birds of prey but these are so expensive of time that he is usually forced to make smaller pieces.
As Mike’s name became better known more people began to collect his work, his order book is now regularly full of commissions. He attends one of the largest exhibitions of natural history carving at Pensthorpe Waterfowl Park each year where his work regularly achieves great acclaim. In 1996 his carving of a goshawk earned him the award of ‘Visitor’s Choice’ and the award from Bird Watching magazine who were, at that time, sponsors of the event. Since then he has won visitor’s choice on two further occasions.
Mike is a very private but proud man; not ruthless enough, it is tempting to think, in the cut and thrust world of such a competitive and difficult business. It is the quality of his work and an eye for detail which has enabled him to be successful. He recounted a tale to me which I found very amusing. His carvings were once on display at a local, up-market National Trust gallery which was visited by none other than Prince Charles. Having an eye for a good piece he spotted a pair of Teal carved by Mike. Being royalty the prince, like my wife, doesn’t carry money but he expressed an interest in the ducks to the manager of the gallery. Now since the ducks were displayed on a sale or return basis the manager wasn’t able to offer the ducks to the prince so she decided to telephone Mike to ask if he would offer them as a gift. Fully expecting Mike to jump at the chance of ‘royal approval’ I can imagine the look on her face when Mike told her that if the prince wanted them he could pay for them like everyone else!
Mike has chosen to create pieces which are as life-like as possible, wishing to reveal the true beauty of birds without the need for stylised representation. He has quite literally carved a niche for himself in the market and doesn’t have any desire to change his ways. He admires the work of modern stylised workers but the most influential role models in his formative years were the Crowell family of Massachusetts, in particular Anthony Elmer Crowell who lived from 1862 to 1952 and made a living by carving decoy birds.
Elmer Crowell, as he was known, began life as a cranberry farmer and even though his artistic flair was well-known he didn’t become a professional carver until he was fifty. In order to make a living he produced decoys for the hunting market on a fairly prolific scale, a maximum of around 280 in one year. Typical prices for his carvings, during his lifetime, varied from $10 for the smallest to $35 for the largest, since his death these prices have increased somewhat to the extent that by 1990 the price paid at auction for a ‘swimming black duck’ carved in his early period was $11,550. More recently prices have increased beyond anyone’s expectation; a wood duck, which is a piece of comparable size realized a staggering $211,500 at auction in 2000 and a preening Canada goose was bought for $684,500 in the same year!
The parallels between Mike’s history and that of Elmer Crowell’s are clear enough, the difference is that Mike is still alive and is currently producing the best work of his life. Entering the art world for its investment opportunity is always a gamble, if an increasingly popular one, but the sheer delight derived from owning such a beautiful, hand-crafted carving is a certainty.
1. The process of carving begins with selecting the right materials, Mike carves from two types of wood, jelutong and basswood these have fine grain which allows the carving of minute details.
2. Starting from a square block of wood a template of the side view of the bird is drawn on and the waste is taken off using a bandsaw.
3. Mike then uses a spoke-shave to sculpt the rough shape of the bird before sanding the bird to achieve a smooth overall feel.
4. Feather details are marked on with a pencil and then edged with various small heads on a grinder.
5. A bit more sanding is required before the feather details are burned in using a tool which works something like a soldering iron.
6. Beaks sometimes have to be added separately to ensure that the grain runs along their length, for strength. Legs are sometimes carved though, for small birds, steel legs and pewter feet can be purchased.
7. The carving is now ready to be painted, a task which is performed using a mixture of an air brush and a selection of fine hand brushes.
8. The base is an art form in itself and Mike is always on the look out for interesting pieces of wood to work into an appropriate shape.
To see more of Mike’s work click here
or to place commissions contact him on 01736 850490. or visit his website: www.mikewoodbird.co.uk