Carver finds art of creating birds from wood fascinating

By Lynn R. Parks

Jewelry boxes first caught his attention.

There were figurines — Santas, gnomes. “But I figured they were just dust collectors,” said Bob Larkin. And there were birds — migratory songbirds, ducks, shorebirds — finely detailed and delicately painted. “I knew that there were not enough years left in my life to learn that,” he said. “There was no way I could do it.” But the woodworker’s show featured jewelry boxes, done in a chip carving style. “I looked at them and thought, now there’s something I can do,” said Larkin. That was 11 years and dozens of woodworking classes ago. Today, Larkin’s carvings sit on the hearth in his Seaford home and fill a lighted glass-front cabinet in the living room. But the jewelry boxes have gone by the wayside. With few exceptions, Larkin now carves birds. “It takes a lot of time to learn,” said Larkin, 65. “But if you are willing to listen, think and use your eyes and hands, you can do it.” Larkin got hooked on bird carving shortly after moving to Seaford from Centreville, Va., in 1993 and signing up as a volunteer docent at the Ward Museum in Salisbury, Md. He took a week-long class through the Ward Museum, the end product of which was a life-size carving of a sanderling, a shorebird that winters on Delmarva. “I finished that bird and I was exhilarated,” Larkin said. “My feet didn’t hit the ground for weeks.” His sanderling is included in the collection in the lighted cabinet. Also there are a life-size kestrel, which Larkin plans to donate to the Nanticoke Memorial Hospital auxiliary for its annual auction, a 1/4-size blue heron, a pair of bluebirds and a goldfinch. The goldfinch, completed last year and perched on a branch which is bare except for a dried leaf and a few red berries, marks Larkin’s transition from just doing crafts to producing works of art, he said. “At this level, I am dealing with art: coming up with the concept, getting the shape just right and the color balance,” he said. Artistic inspiration sometimes even comes in the middle of the night, waking him up with a revelation on how to work the magenta of a bird into the rest of the sculpture, for example, or how to arrange two house finches on a branch. The two house finches, beaks barely touching, is one of three pieces he plans to enter into the world carving championships next spring; the championships are held every April at the Ward Museum. Other entries will be a yellow-rumped warbler — the accurate portrayal for which he took out on six-month loan from the Delaware Museum of Natural History a “skin,” or gutted warbler carcass — and a miniature pheasant. His goal is a blue ribbon in the intermediate class — so far he has earned only second- and third-place ribbons — and the reassurance that he can move up into the advanced class. “The point is to capture the essence of the birds,” Larkin said. “You want to portray their habitat and their characteristics. You have to be concerned with telling their story.” In addition to his carving, on which he said he spends 16 to 20 hours a month, Larkin hosts a carving class in his garage. The Nanticoke Woodcarver’s Guild, which meets the second and fourth Wednesday of every month and for which there is no charge, is for everyone, from the absolute novice to the professional. “I have taught women who have never held a knife in their hands,” he said. And Robert Culver, Greenwood, who has been carving since 1985 and who sells his creations at craft shows, attends the class regularly. “Everybody can learn from somebody,” Culver said. “Bob is very patient and I can learn from him really well,” said Linda Justice, Bethel, who took her first lesson from Larkin in 1999. “He is so knowledgeable and if you have a problem, he makes it easy to correct.” During a recent class, Larkin helped Justice to paint eyes onto a rustic Santa she had carved. He also demonstrated how to make miniature leaves from copper foil, burnishing them first with the back of a blade then etching in thin lines to represent the leaf’s veins. Larkin does not sell his works. Only when he is good enough that people approach him to buy something will he take money for a sculpture, he said. “Until then, I just keep them, or give them away,” he said. “This is just like playing golf,” he added. “If you have the will and you work hard at it, you can become reasonable good at golf. I have become reasonable good at this. And I am loving every minute of it. It is a fascinating hobby.”

News tips wanted
Call us with ideas for news and features. We're always looking for good stories to share with readers. Call Bryant Richardson at 629-9788.