The newest exhibition opening at the New Britain Museum of American Art features a private collection of a truly American art form. One Man’s Passion: The Art of Carved Birds will be open to the public on August 5 through September 25 with the opening reception scheduled for Thursday, August 11 from 5:30-7PM. This collection, owned and steadily added to by J. Kemler (Kem) Appell, highlights miniature decorative bird carvings.
While the carvings exemplify technical skill and attention to naturalistic detail, the viewer may wonder what differentiates a bird display in a natural history museum from bird carvings exhibited as a distinct artistic style. How can the study of birds in their natural habitat or in an educational setting be translated into an artistic creation favored for its form and color?
Interestingly, bird carving is recognized as North America’s only major indigenous folk art form, beginning 1,500 years ago when Native Americans fashioned bird decoys as hunting tools from reeds and grasses. This method was introduced to the European colonists, who subsequently began to use wood as the preferred medium for creating these bird decoys.
Bird carving evolved from a strictly functional decoy to a widely sought-after art form due in large part to the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act which banned the hunting of migratory waterfowl. As a result, bird carvers who had previously made a living from the widespread sale and production of decoys for market use adjusted their focus by incorporating a wider range of species, as well as narrative into their work and display. The resulting decorative function of bird carving has been prevalent ever since. Today, entire collections such as the Wendell Gilley Museum and the Birds of Vermont Museum center on the preservation and recognition of bird carving as an art form.
One of the noted differences between a more scientific bird display and a gallery exhibition of bird carving is the medium used. While stuffed models (similar to taxidermy) present a lifelike study from which to learn about a bird species and their anatomy, the detailed carving of the decorative miniatures is facilitated by the use of tupelo wood, widely favored by carvers for its softness and pliability. The tupelo or black gum tree is also a honey plant and the primary material used for the bird carvings in One Man’s Passion: The Art of Carved Birds. Once carved, the miniatures are then hand painted with exquisite detail to create not only the image of the bird but to convey the mood of the creature itself. The artists represented in One Man’s Passion: The Art of Carved Birds are largely self-taught, gaining their knowledge and expertise through personal interaction with their subject and hours spent carving their pieces. The miniature size of the carvings not only displays an inherent skill but also the decorative aspects of the medium.
It is the collector of One Man’s Passion: The Art of Carved Birds who best defines the art, stating “A decorative bird carver’s aspiration is to exactly replicate a bird in a dramatic pose, environment or habitat. Each one is unique, a frozen moment capturing personality, behaviors, habitats, friends and foes, painstakingly labored over by a skilled hand.” This aspiration for a creative interpretation of nature within a narrative context is displayed by the collection, separating it from a more didactic exhibit created for informational and historical purposes alone.
Are there any other differences that separate these two types of exhibitions? Can, or should, a line be drawn between fine art and an educational display?
Be sure to visit the Museum’s Davis Gallery starting Friday, August 5 to experience the awe-inspiring art of carved birds.