Birds perch on the living room mantel, on side tables and shelves, and in the dining room, where a tall cabinet holds even more of the two-legged creatures. Vibrant plumage and gracefully long legs, necks and beaks create a virtual aviary.
The birds, however, are still. There are no cages, feeders or watering bowls.
Tom Baldwin, a career commercial artist who’s won wildfowl carving competitions on a regional, national and international level, offers a meaty hand and welcomes visitors to his Cuyahoga Falls home and art studio.
His art can be found in the United States and Canada, and he also pens articles for carving magazines.
Baldwin, who grew up in Wadsworth and served five terms on its city council, says he’s worked as an “illustrator, cartoonist, sign maker … all kinds of things.”
And since the early 1980s, he has worn yet another hat, when his passion for wildfowl carving took flight. Interestingly, Baldwin, with all of his artistic endeavors, never carved until then.
During that time, he and his children were vacationing in Chincoteague, an island off the Virginia coast.
“I’ve always been interested in bird watching, but what I didn’t expect was that Chincoteague is so deeply steeped in decoy tradition,” Baldwin recalls. “There’s a huge history of it there.”
Decoys are an American art, Baldwin adds, pointing to a few in his collection. Readers are likely familiar with decoys, meant to attract real-life waterfowl, are simple in design and have little detail on the painting end.
Baldwin hails from an artistic family; a painting of a boat by his late father hangs above the fireplace, flanked by two of Baldwin’s own watercolors.
“With watercolor, you either get it or you miss it. And if you miss it, you turn it over and paint it on the other side,” Baldwin says with a laugh.
Waterfowl wood carving is a disciplined art: Baldwin studies the anatomy of the bird before he embarks on his projects.
Baldwin’s 84-year-old mother is “very artistic and did excellent work with cloth, quilting, stuff like that,” he adds.
During that Chincoteague trip, Baldwin says he “tooled around town and met some of the local carvers and expressed my interest in what they were doing.” They obliged, giving him old carving knives, blocks of wood and “lots of advice.”
Baldwin’s first carving attempt was to create a kingfisher, which took him nine months to complete. The large piece is not as intricate as the other pieces he’s since done, but it still reveals a mastery of detail.
“It was more than just a piece of art for me; it was more of a creative epiphany,” Baldwin reflects on the kingfisher. “This is what I want to do, my best destiny for the abilities I have.”
Four Carving Techniques
Baldwin employs four carving techniques: Primitives, Contemporary, Interpretive and Gallery Style, the last of which he enjoys most.
“I love Gallery, also called ‘decorative.’ It’s the most labor-intensive,” Baldwin says. “It’s crazy. If you look at it, it’s anatomy, so there’s biology and art.”
With this style, Baldwin first does extensive research on the selected bird using collections and archives at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
A large sketchpad on the dining table shows pages filled with drawings and precise measurements, as if Baldwin were a med student only studying bird anatomy.
Along with the sketches, he also photographs and does study scans to get accurate wing size, beak color, etc., for a better grasp of the biology of the bird. Before setting upon the wood, Baldwin sometimes sculpts a clay model for proportion.
“The research is intense, but I love that part, actually,” Baldwin says. “I like the mixture of art and science.”
Baldwin’s Gallery Style work is either commissioned or a self-chosen project, as well as for competitions. He’s won Best of Show and 1st, 2nd and 3rd Place at events including the Ohio Decoy Collectors and Carvers Association (ODCCA) and the Wings ‘n Water Festival in Cape May, N.J., which dedicates itself to the recognition of various wildlife art and hosts the North American Shorebird Carving Competition.
Baldwin’s award-winning art has been published in the International Wildfowl Carver’s Association magazine.
(Read more after the video.)
In addition to the time-consuming carving and attention to detail, Baldwin must find a way to present the bird in a natural environment, whether on marsh grass, a rock, or just about to alight on a twig.
“So there’s engineering as well, and it makes you think about a lot of things,” he says. “We’re trying to capture a moment in the bird’s life, a kind of a millisecond narrative.”
He pulls out a three-month Gallery Style project, a bobolink that looks as if it will actually chirp, and it’s resting on a realistic looking perennial grass called timothy, made from a brass rod and copper sheeting.
The bobolink’s feathers are so detailed one can almost feel its softness. And there’s no cloth used whatsoever to create this effect, just carving and paint.
After Baldwin carves all of a bird’s tufts, he then goes back in and creates the feather breaks or lines within the tufts. Details of the face and wingtips are burned in with X-Acto knife-like tools using thermostatic controls and lots of texturing.
“In competition, if you miss a point, have too many knuckles in a toe, the eye is not set exactly right or the beak’s just a millimeter too long, it could take you right out of the running,” says Baldwin of the high standards and fierce competitiveness of wood carving competition.
Baldwin designs his Gallery Style pieces to come apart, making it easier for event transport and shipping. A bird will detach from its perch that then detaches from its base, and so on.
Lacking the intensity of the Gallery Style is the Interpretive, which Baldwin describes as an “anything goes bird,” a design process akin to how one might “see a shape in a cloud, where you just kind of get inspired.”
“If anyone wants to talk in simple terms, Interpretive is kind of a more modern approach to bird carving,” he adds. “It’s designed more to attract the essence of the bird versus its authentic nature, more a feeling about flight or movement.”
Primitives, says Baldwin, are smooth and the “whole root of the carving industry and go back to the very essence of decoy making.”
Their simplicity and price make them a popular choice for collectors and home decor. The carving is simple, just the basic shape of a bird, with little detail in the actual painting.
“The Primitives fit anywhere because of their folksy, historical kind of look,” Baldwin says. “And they don’t cost as much because they’re made more quickly. You shape it, sand it then paint it, so pricing is reasonable.”
Of the four styles, most folks like the Gallery Style, but when they find out the price, “they’re not quite as enamored, so they choose the ‘Smoothie’ (Contemporary), what I sell most,” Baldwin says.
The Contemporary is smooth (like the Primitive) and gives buyers the detailed painting without the pricey cost of carving that makes the Gallery Style so lifelike. For example, a wing or beak on a Contemporary is carved to a certain degree, but it is the detailed painting of the piece that makes its details pop.
Baldwin points to a Contemporary blue heron that took him 40 hours to paint.
“The contemporary form is another method we use to keep costs in people’s budgets because not everyone can afford the Gallery Style, as they’re pretty intense,” he says.
Choice of Wood
His carving wood of choice was initially American Basswood, also known as American Linden, native to New England and the Midwest, but he now prefers Tupelo wood, which belongs to the sourgum family and is found in moist and swampy areas of North America.
“Tupelos are like cypress trees, real big-bottomed trunks,” Baldwin says. “We have people down South who brave the alligators and snakes to harvest this crazy stuff. It’s not cheap, but you can’t beat it for what it does.”
Most of the year the trunk of the Tupelo is underwater, and when the water recedes in the winter the trunks are then harvested, explains Baldwin, adding that the wood is remarkably soft, like pine or basswood, and very pliable.
“It’s amazing how thin you can cut it without it breaking off,” he adds. “The Cajun carvers prefer to keep it wet when they carve their basic shapes.”
Baldwin does his preliminary work in a studio in a back, well-lit room of his home. The actual carving takes place in a garage workshop, where the pleasing smell of wood shavings permeate. A heavy plastic, paneled curtain, as found in a walk-in cooler, protects the family vehicles from the fine dust that lingers.
The carving area has an attached vacuum bag that whisks away dust through a micro filter, and Baldwin always wears a mask while working.
“The dust is so finite, and the filter keeps it breathable in here,” he says. “If you get too much of this stuff in your lungs you’re going to die eventually! Guys with chisels don’t have to worry so much but carvers do.”
Carving tools, some of which resemble props from a torture flick, are plenty. And costly. There are diamond encrusted cutters, similar in size to a jeweler’s repair kit, and a thermostat to gauge how deep or not to burn the wood for more intricate work.
Nearby is a foredom, a hand-held tool that Baldwin calls the “real workhorses that have a nice, little tip you don’t want your fingers to get involved with.” He turns on the foredom, which screams like a miniature saw mill, and begins to remove wood from a block.
Caught up in the demonstration, the foredom jumps slightly from Baldwin’s grasp and knicks one of his fingernails. Quite cleanly. No damage.
Working so closely with nature comes easily to Baldwin because he was exposed to it earlier on, accompanying his folks on nature outings while his father used an 8-millimeter camera to photograph wildlife.
“I’ve had a lifetime of hauling cameras, tripods, tape recorders, testing out microphones …,” Baldwin recollects. “My parents, on top of everything people do for a living, really loved the earth.” I grew up hearing things like, ‘Man is the custodian of the earth; we have to take care of our planet, our nature, our water and air.”
Baldwin’s rates vary. He charges for time and materials, not research.
His most expensive piece is a red-tailed hawk that took six months to make and retails for $15,000. Knowing how costly art can be, part of Baldwin’s own collection includes pieces from other carvers, with whom he trades pieces.
He also has a line of about three dozen basswood Christmas ornaments with bird imagery on both sides that sell for $9 apiece. These ornaments, using handcrafting and digital media, are based on American advertising and marketing from the 1900s to 1930s.
From January through April, Baldwin says he’s “deeply immersed in the studio” doing competition carving, with the remainder of the year crafting the Christmas ornaments and other work.
“The bottom line is that this is a custom business; I make what people need,” Baldwin offers. “It’s not a good idea to have too much of an inventory.”
Much of Baldwin’s work is local and order-based, and many of his clients have a favorite bird or bird experience they want him to reproduce. Other clients for inspiration visit his website, www.songofwood.com, which Baldwin designed. The inspiration for the website’s name came from his wife, Barbara Sabol, a published poet whose work includes a poem of the same name.
Clients who commission work pay 50 percent after they approve drawings of the piece, paying the balance at completion of the carving.
“Some kind of visual reference is necessary with commissioned work,” Baldwin says.
While Baldwin has received many accolades for his work, as seen in the Carving Gallery on his website, he’s optimistic to further his passion.
“I haven’t broken the big crack in the competition circuit, which is the world championship, but I’m trying,” Baldwin says. “It’s very, very, very competitive and the guys in it are extremely good. I’ve beaten some of these guys at smaller shows at other venues. And I know I can do it at the world championships. It’s just a matter of getting the right judges, right bird and the right carving.”
Visit www.songofwood.com to learn more about Baldwin, view his work and obtain contact information.