From Basswood to Birds

By Willa Wick in Arts & Music, People

He held out his arm and the wings fluttered as the Great Horned Owl swooped towards the chipmunk.
This was the bird that won a first prize ribbon and Carver’s Choice at the State Fair in Tampa Florida.
The arm doesn’t need a leather glove for this bird has no heart, indeed, it doesn’t even breathe, and he will never pounce on that chipmunk… for he’s a sculpture made of basswood. His wings flutter in the breeze because they’re attached on a thin brass rod to the mount of a Californian Mangetta root. The weight of the body plus the individual wing and tail feathers produce the bounce that makes the owl appear to flutter and swoop.
Like many young boys of his day, Murray Blackburn whittled objects with a jack knife just to amuse himself. After leaving high school Blackburn worked for Kaufman Furniture in Collingwood so he had a feel for, and appreciation of various woods. Now living in Mount Forest, Blackburn has been carving birds nigh onto 40 years.
The inspiration came when he attended a sale for a relative of his wife. This was no ordinary sale, it was a 3-day auction mostly of wooden carvings done by a chap who was a virtual recluse living in a cabin in the woods. Will Loney did wood carvings and his two storey house (and staircase) was cluttered with them.
During the sale Blackburn’s attention was captured by a carved pot of lilies. The lily petals were so thin they were almost transparent. Now, many years later, Will Loney Carvings are much sought-after collectibles and very valuable.
While they were still living in Collingwood, Murray’s wife Jessie saw a poster at the local hairdresser’s advertising a course in bird carving. From that course Blackburn learned the basics of carving and painting, and produced a Nuthatch. He would rise early in the morning and carve for a couple of hours before leaving for work in the Engineering Dept. for the Town of Collingwood. At that point he only had a jack knife so the process was very slow, but he made at least a dozen nuthatches before he was happy with the results. As with any craft, each new undertaking was better than the last as he tried to fine tune his skill and make it more realistic.
Moving south the Blackburn’s took up residence at Pike Lake. When they first moved, there were only 12 building sites, so over the 43 years they witnessed many Pike Lake changes. The Blackburn’s had the good fortune to winter in Florida.
Wood Carving is very popular south of the border and Murray was able to join other groups of carvers and as well take painting lessons from a professional (who just happened to live across the street.)
He entered his sculptures in many carving shows, local fairs, and large state fairs in Orlando and Tampa. There’s a large box of blue ribbons attesting to his perfection. (Red indicates a 1st in Canada, but a blue ribbon is #1 in the U.S.)
The wood for carving is chosen from blocks of well seasoned basswood, butternut, mahogany, walnut or red cedar. Pine is soft enough to carve but the loose grain doesn’t hold the definition needed for feathers. One of Murray’s favorite southern woods is Tupelo from the Mississippi swamps. It’s light with a fine grain. Cypress from Florida must be boiled to remove the bark. A Californian Mangetta root makes an interesting base with its many small knots, bumps and hollows.
The carver starts with a squared block, draws on a pattern, and rough cuts with a band saw down from the top and sides to get a 3-D piece. (There’s a bird in that block somewhere just waiting to be released.) From there it’s roughed out with chisels, knives and gouges. A power carver has several sizes of bits for providing detail. The feathers are marked with an electric wood burning pen and there might be as many as 40 tiny strokes to the inch on each feather to make it look realistic
The Blackburn “workshop” is in the front room where the southern exposure gives him lots of light to work by. The workbench is a bright blue metal box with a vacuum to eliminate the dust, and a padded hand rest with an indentation to hold the bird in place. The ordinary jack knife has been replaced with regular carving knives, gouges and chisels. These have to be honed on a leather strop with a sharpening compound. The tools have to be sharpened constantly so they cut easily and smoothly.
Blackburn has perfected his painting skills over the years using a variety of brushes including air brushes, and always uses acrylic (water-based) paints. Carefully scrutinizing live birds and pictures to obtain a true likeness, he found that nearly every bird has some blue or purple shading in its feathers. If a finished piece has a beautiful grain with simple lines like a loon he will just clear coat the wood to highlight the grain. This would be termed a stylized work.
Often to give a better perspective (rather than facing straight forward) the head and body will be carved separately and the head affixed looking to the side or cocked upwards.
The eyes can be carved in and painted but it’s more realistic to use glass eyes. The feet and legs are pewter. In competitions artificial feet, legs and eyes are acceptable. Mounting is important and the base must match or compliment the carving.
The first carving of every different species is retained for posterity, future reference, and comparison.
Murray estimates he has carved in excess of 1000 birds over the years. Many have been gifted for birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, Christmas etc. There’s a stock of birds for sale or one can be commissioned on request. Many have been donated to local fund raisers and charity draws or auctions.
The event closest to his heart is the Mary Lynn Forrest Memorial Golf Tournament. For years while the Blackburn’s lived at Pike Lake, during the winter Mary Lynn would keep an eye on the property and collect and forward the mail. Whatever course Murray taught in Florida – he would carve an extra bird for Mary Lynn and bring it home as a thank-you.
Blackburn also does colored pencil sketching, and likes to make mirror frames using the chip carving method.
Bird carving seems to be a lesser practiced hobby and the two closest clubs that he’s aware of are at Grand Valley and Kitchener. Murray would like to see the craft established locally and would be willing to be an instructor.
During April a collection of his wood carvings will be featured in the Mount Forest Public Library. Visit the exhibit and see such things as a pair of mallards and a turtle beside a (non-evaporating) pond of water while a fish glides below the surface.
For the month of May these lifelike trophies will transfer to the Harriston Historical Society. The Blackburn carvings will be a major exhibit in the John Webb Room on the third floor of the Harriston Library.