When it comes to birds and waterfowl, carving artist's imagination takes flight SOUTHEAST--Sykesville * Eldersburg * Gamber

February 23, 1993|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Contributing Writer

When someone says, "That's for the birds," Al Burk can't resist smiling.

Most of the available space in his Sykesville home is devoted to his passion for birds -- not raising them but rather carving them in wood. His work is to be found in every room, including the kitchen.

"I have a very understanding wife," he said with a wink.

"People see my white hair and think I've been doing this all my life," he said, as he sat at his workbench in his studio.

"Actually, I didn't begin carving until I went to the Easton Waterfowl Festival in 1979 and got the bug. I thought, 'Gee, I want to do that,' " he said.

He taught himself how to carve through trial and error and observing the work of others.

"I subscribe to the old wood carvers' saying that goes: There's a duck inside a block of wood and all you have to do is carve it out," he said.

He learned the craft so well that in 1981 he was invited to participate in the highly esteemed Easton show and has been a regular participant for years. He now does about 10 shows a year, traveling as far west as Madison, Wis., to show his work.

"I really get up for these shows," he said. "I really get a kick out of people telling me how much they enjoy my work."

Mr. Burk, 57, a man with a ruddy complexion and deep, intense blue eyes, grew up in Baltimore, near Walbrook, and worked 30 years as an insurance man before retiring five years ago. Retirement allowed him the luxury of being able to carve full time.

He and his wife, Lynn, who married 35 years ago, moved to Sykesville in 1976 and raised four sons, now almost all married and out on their own. They have three grandchildren who like nothing more than going into their grandfather's studio to admire his reference collection of stuffed birds and to see what he's working on at the moment.

He carves life-sized birds and produces what he calls "realistic" representations. To make sure they are anatomically correct, he maintains an extensive reference library of books, slides, photos, videos and sketches.

He observes such birds as the ruffed grouse or common loon in the wild near his home at Piney Run.

Or he travels to the Salisbury Zoo, which has the Ward Foundation's collection of live North Atlantic Flyway birds that he meticulously studies and sketches.

"I carve my birds after studying live ones and never carve from memory or copying someone else's work," he said. "I'll only do a bird if I have adequate reference material."

His collection of stuffed birds, some of which the grandchildren have named, he keeps in a special closet.

These birds, which he is legally allowed to have, aid him in scaling the bird when it comes time to sketch a pattern. He even has scale models of bird bills, handy when it comes down to carving heads and beaks.

"Spring is when the birds wear their full plumage and is the best time to photograph them," he said.

The walls of his studio-study are lined with sketches, some his own; color photos of birds in flight; plus shelves and cupboards full of bird books.

His work bench neatly contains knives, brushes and other tools he uses when carving.

Mr. Burk prefers to carve in basswood, which is from the linden tree. It has a white tone, is light and has a close grain.

After drawing the pattern on the block of wood, which is cut according to the size of the bird to be carved, the carving is roughed out on a band saw.

This is where the use of standard woodworking tools ceases.

"Some carvers take shortcuts, but I don't," he said. He shapes the body of the bird with various knives and then begins the exacting business of drawing the feather pattern. Each barb is burned and textured with an electric wood-burning tool, one stroke at a time. By the time Mr. Burk finishes this phase of the carving, the body of the bird is blackened.

"I burn deep, which gives me more freedom when it comes time to paint the bird," he says.

His use of acrylic paints is so remarkable that people looking at his work can't resist the temptation to touch it. "I dry-brush and stipple on paint and highlight where needed," he said. "I really enjoy doing the painting and while working will put down the bird, look for mistakes and, if I see any, I have the freedom to at least fix them."

The heads of the birds are carved separately unless it is a sleeping bird and then that "sculpture," as Mr. Burk calls this type of work, is one piece.

Mr. Burk's carvings take an enormous amount of patience, concentration and time. "I do roughly about 24 carvings a year and have them in various stages of completion, so I am working on several at once," he said.

He carves seven days a week and works out to relieve the tension of a long day's work.

"My wife says that I don't know what's going on in the world because I'm in my own world," he said.

Mr. Burk resists describing himself as an artist, preferring to call himself a traditional carver.

He also loves to help and encourage beginning carvers, some of whom will bring their work to shows and ask him to critique it. "I tell them everything I know," he said. "There's no point in keeping this thing a big secret."

He is excited that so many people today are discovering the joys of carving. "However, for me this is a hobby," he said. "I never want it to be a business."

His work is sought after by collectors and he does work on commissions. "Every bird I do is an original. No two are the same," he said.

Some of the collectors who have purchased his work have had to add on to their homes, he said.

Is there hope that his grandchildren will some day carry on the carving tradition?

"I don't know. They're awfully young. However, my son, Kevin, did a piece a few years ago," he said, proudly showing off his son's effort in the living room.

He modestly added that he did the painting. "He waited for me to do it and I was honored by that," he said.

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