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My Kids Think My Friends are Cool

Monday, October 30, 2006

One of the great luxuries of hosting the Artists' Gathering was being able to include our kids in the fun. Living as far out in the sticks as we do, Phoebe and Liam LOVE having company. But company that will play with them and bring cool things to look at is even better.

This post is going to be an unabashed rhapsody on the coolness of one Larry Barth of Stahlstown, PA, the world's greatest bird carver. If that sounds jejeune of me, consider: I've judged several bird carving competitions, and I'm well aware that the field of bird carving is given to breathless hyperbole. The Ward Foundation World Championship is held each spring in Ocean City, Maryland, and it is huge. Carvers from all over the world compete. There are big blowsy blue ribbons and lots of puffery. But Larry Barth is the undisputed Mr. Universe of Bird Carving in my eyes, and pretty much everyone else's, too. That's because he knows birds from the inside out, and he has the soul of an artist coupled with the mind of a physicist.

I paint birds on paper. So does Larry. Here are some life sketches he made of a least bittern. He draws like a demon. But then, having drawn them from every conceivable angle (and from life, I must add), Larry carves those birds from wood, needing in the process to know every single feather and shape; how they look upside down, from the rear, head on, from above and from underneath. He's got to get all those planes and shapes just right. He's got to carve every feather and burn every barbule in with a woodburner. THEN he has to figure out how to construct, from copper, brass, metal, epoxy, and what-have-you, the plants they perch on. He's got to figure out what kind of base will support all this, and make all the supports invisible. THEN, and only then, does he get to paint these birds with acrylic paints, making sure they have the sheen of healthy feathers without looking like plastic. And he does all this, and makes it look absolutely effortless, and heartbreakingly beautiful. Here's his 2006 World Championship winner, 'I'iwi and Ohio Lehua. For this piece, he traveled to Hawaii and sought out the endemi 'i'iwi in its native vegetation.

Larry also makes dinosaur skeletons out of brass, with a torch and soldering iron. For fun. His coolness quotient shot through the roof when he brought those out. The kids were transfixed, none more than Liam, who immediately began plotting to pinch them for his very own. Larry and his wife Linda had anticipated this reaction, and had brought an encylopedia of trains with which to trade Liam back for the tiny dinosaurs. It worked pretty well. (I was rooting for Liam, though, and reminding Larry that tiny brass dinosaurs make fabulous hostess gifts!)

In the end, Liam, who is either going to be Superman (note pumpin' abs) or Mr. Incredible for Halloween, triumphed. He got Mr. Universe down on the kitchen floor, planted a boot on his chest, and subjected him to a thorough lickin' from Chet Baker. Baker is sensitive to people in need, and sympathizes with the underdog in any altercation.

I probably don't need to mention that Larry Barth, in addition to all the virtues I've listed, is also a mighty kind and fine human being. Kids and dogs are never wrong.


I had the good fortune to be in a high school ceramics/pottery class with Larry. His talent was apparent even then. But my worst high school memory is of the day I knocked one of his nearly-finished ceramic birds onto the classroom floor. I received a well-deserved lecture from Mrs. Lutka, the teacher; but Larry was very gracious, assuring me that it could be "easily" repaired. I think back on this, and still cringe inwardly when I realize what damage I had done to a magnificent piece.

Please give Larry my best regards, and belated apologies. Thank goodness that my clumsiness didn't make him decide to be an accountant! His work is incredible.

Hi my name is Danny Cruces. I am a Hawaiian bird carver. I love his i'iwi sculptures and I would like to ask him a few questions about polymer clay. I don't know how to contact him - would you please give me his contact information? I would appreciate it very much! Aloha - Danny -

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