Carving out a career

Art: Former college and pro quarterback now wins accolades for his authentic renderings of wildfowl.

June 19, 2005|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Jack Scarbath has gone from carving up opposing defenses with his quarterback skills to carving fine wood pieces into exquisite wildfowl creations.

A runner-up for college football's coveted Heisman Trophy in 1952, Scarbath has earned different kinds of accolades with his carving: prizes at carving competitions, a steady stream of commission work, and invitations to exhibit at festivals.

On a recent afternoon at his studio in Rising Sun, Scarbath deftly held a carving tool and worked with precise movements. His large hands seemed to overwhelm the tiny tool as he fashioned minute indentations in the wood.

"Carving isn't in the hands, it's more what you envision," said Scarbath. "You cut away everything that doesn't look like a goose."

Scarbath strives for authenticity and detail.

"You really have to work hard to get the birds to look natural," he said. "You have to get just the right expression out of the bird. I try to do everything with realism and that takes a lot of work."

Over the years, Scarbath's artistic endeavor has come as a surprise to many who remember him as a star at the University of Maryland who went on to play for the Washington Redskins in the National Football League.

"It seems like he'd leave football and be riding horses or racing cars," said Johnny Holliday, longtime radio announcer for Maryland sports. "He's the only one I know in sports, with his background, that's carving like he does. It just seems so different than what you might expect him to be doing."

In 1962, after a highlight-filled college career, several years in the NFL, and a stint as a college coach, Scarbath left football to put his industrial engineering degree to use. He became a sales manager for a steel abrasives company in Philadelphia and then in Cleveland, before starting his own firm.

"There wasn't any money in football in those days and I wanted to spend more time with my family, so I went to work selling abrasives," said Scarbath. "But, I needed something more to fill the time I spent in hotel rooms [as a traveling salesman]. Carving was the answer.

"Carving wildfowl seemed a good choice because I hunted ducks and geese, and I'm an outdoorsman."

To learn the art, Scarbath attended classes taught by master carvers in Cecil County and used what he calls the "kindling process" to learn.

"I made a lot of firewood when I started carving," Scarbath quipped.

"If you make a mistake, you start over. There's no fixing it. I use Idaho white pine, bass and tupelo woods, and they're quite expensive, so I take my time and don't make mistakes."

Scarbath started by carving small ducks and progressed to works depicting more intricate details such as feathers.

His wife, Lynn, said carving has cultivated qualities other than those needed on the football field.

"I'm glad he found carving," said Lynn. "I think it's helped to make Jack a patient man. I have no talent along that line, and it amazes me to see him do tiny detail."

Her favorite piece is a feathered blue heron that holds a place of honor in the family dining room.

"We have one in the pond across the street and Jack's looks just like it. It would be hard to ever let that one go," she said.

Observers have often wondered how a man with such large hands has become such a skilled carver.

"His hands are twice as big as mine," said Holliday. "I just can't believe he creates such beautiful, intricate and detailed work with his massive hands."

Though Scarbath has been at it for decades, carving has been growing in popularity more recently, and has become lucrative, says Kenneth Basile, director of Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art at Salisbury University.

"Bird carvers are generating millions of dollars for the art form," said Basile, adding that there are more than 5,000 carvers in the United States.

The value of Scarbath's work ranges from $300 to $50,000, but most of his pieces - he averages about eight per year - are donated to foundations or nonprofit organizations that sell them to raise money.

"I believe you should give back to your community," Scarbath said. "My pieces usually go for about $5,500-$6,500 in the auctions."

Scarbath's most-prized piece, valued at $50,000, was one he spent more than 2,000 hours completing.

"It's 16 quail breaking away from a covey," said Scarbath.

"When quail sleep, they get into a circle with their heads sticking out and when they are alarmed by something, they break and scatter. It took me six weeks to put together a Styrofoam model for the project."

Scarbath also exhibits his work at the Havre de Grace Decoy and Wildlife Festival and the Easton Waterfowl Festival, and other events around the country.

In the 1960s, shortly after he started carving, he won second place in the World Championship Wildfowl Competition in Long Island. Today the event is sponsored by the Ward Museum and held in Easton.

In October, Scarbath's work is scheduled to be on exhibit at the Liriodendron Mansion in Bel Air.

According to Fred Frederick, who commissioned Scarbath to do some works for his Easton business, even locals who know plenty about waterfowl carving admire his skill.

"I don't know carving, but the customers who come into my business do," said Frederick, owner of the Chrysler Agency.

"When these people who carve and have grown up around carving see the geese we commissioned him to do, they can't believe they're wood. They look so real."

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