Carving out a niche: outdoor wildlife as indoor still life

Posted Aug. 30, 2012, at 12:31 p.m.
Taking a 1995 class in bird carving at the Wendell Gilley Museum in Southwest Harbor inspired a new career for Sue Talbot, who now carves exquisite birds from tupelo wood.
Photo courtesy of Sue Talbot
Taking a 1995 class in bird carving at the Wendell Gilley Museum in Southwest Harbor inspired a new career for Sue Talbot, who now carves exquisite birds from tupelo wood.

You’d be forgiven for assuming that Sue Talbot is a taxidermist. With the intricate detail, realistic colors, perfect anatomy and lifelike posing of her bird carvings, it’s hard to tell they’re carved from wood.

And often that process requires a lot of preparation to bring her avian visions to life.

“I have to ‘feel’ them,” Talbot said. “There are projects that I’m working with, internally, for several years before I am ready to begin carving.”

Talbot was always creative, and she attended college at an art school. But after marrying, she opened a garden center that she ran for 25 years. With a daughter soon arriving, and her time-consuming small business, her artistic ambitions were tertiary. She’d come home after a long day only to draw and paint late into the night; eventually, she began burning out.

Then in 1995 she saw an ad for a one-day course in bird carving at the Wendell Gilley Museum in Southwest Harbor.

“I said, ‘Whoa, now there’s something I could do,’” she recalled, thinking that, unlike painting, she could more easily put that sort of project aside for a while.

Although her childhood had been full of summertime camping and exposure to nature, Talbot had never given birds much thought. That quickly changed with her new creative endeavor — and she found that she had natural talent at it.

“That’s what lit my fire,” Talbot said. “I just became very interested in the whole process.”

Around the same time, she took a class on fly tying and found a talent for that. Talbot does not sell her ties, citing difficulty in competing with cheap foreign-made lures, but the flies echoed her bird carving interest as many flies are tied with feathers. Later, she became a volunteer with Casting for Recovery in Maine, annually volunteering at a weekend retreat where 14 breast cancer survivors come to learn fly fishing.

But where tying a fly can take minutes, carving a bird is much more involved. A chickadee on a pine cone ($1,200) takes two weeks; Talbot’s peregrine falcon ($24,000) took three months. Unlike some bird carvers, Talbot works from one block of wood; no joined pieces, no putty filler.

She starts with a block of tupelo — a light, strong, short-grained wood that holds intricate detail. After sketching views on the block’s sides, she begins roughing out the bird’s shape before starting the meticulous detail work that brings the bird to life.

The legs and feet are made from copper or brass and are coated with an epoxy putty, then shaped and sculpted. Aside from that, Talbot carves everything, right down to the pine cones, leaves and rocks the birds perch on. The bird detail is incredible, from the anatomy and coloring to the feather groups and the feather details. But it’s more than that.

“It’s the essence of the bird, capturing the bird — the essence, the spark,” Talbot said. “It’s no different than looking at a portrait of a person. Sometimes you say, ‘Wow.’ Sometimes you can’t even define why you like it. That’s what it’s about — capturing a moment in the intangible life of the bird.”

See more of Sue Talbot’s work and purchase carvings at TalbotCarvings.com.

 

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