Birds on Driftwood

Monday 9 July 2018

I carve birds and enjoy using driftwood on which to perch them. The rivers of north Wales, when I harvest it between October and April, produce a good selection. It's not always easy to find though. Often I have been sent on a false trail by a well-wisher, having forgotten the significance of the word 'drift'.

I work on pieces for small rooms so mostly I'm looking for tight curves, interweaving whorls, in which a lot happens in a small space. The sap in the wood has been sluiced out by the river so the wood doesn't rot. Still, it's wet and I put it in the microwave, which has the extra advantage of driving out woodlice and other bugs.

Perfect balance

These days I start with the driftwood not a carving. It will tell a story that dictates the choice of my bird; they should complement each other. So the perch for my little owl, for instance, curves on itself, looping in miniature versions of the bird, and looks at home. Its opposite is the vertical piece of ivy which supports the sedge warbler, emphasising fragility, particularly the left-hand vertical which floats instead of being anchored. The height of the piece also makes the bird smaller. As well as suggesting a defensive wall, the driftwood that supports the little tern echoes the bird's play of light and darkness. I have other pieces which, matched with the right bird, provide camouflage. Others taper and curve upwards to 'throw' winged birds, and some I fasten together in circles into which waders will peer. But I set myself limits in terms of the change I will make; in something re-coloured and reshaped, the bloom of authenticity is easily lost.

On a pedestal

I don't like using pedestals, unless it's unavoidable and quiet. I prefer as little as possible between me and the bird and its perch. A pedestal highlights the efforts of the woodcarver, especially when polished with a brass nameplate, at the expense of the bird.

Also feet don't feature in my birds. Realism is an obsession I don't share. I use a peg rather than feet, which frees the birds for handling rather than leaving them nailed to the ground. For me, the result is a craft object rather than something that aspires to a stuffed bird.

Enterprise living

Driftwood hunting is a constant source of pleasure. On one river, seals will surface half a mile inland, or there might be a slither on the driftwood ahead as a sunbathing grass snake suddenly scatters. And on another river, there's a small group of young men living during the summer in tents, with a handsome driftwood structure nearby. I admire their enterprise living, so when one of them checked out my armful of wood and driftwood collecting, asking, “Sleeping rough, are you?” I felt flattered.