Retired college professor creates replicas of featured friends
By Dale Short, Daily Mountain Eagle
They don’t sing or fly. Otherwise, when you look at one of Duane Larson’s meticulously crafted wooden birds, you’d be forgiven if you thought they were the real thing.
He picked up his love of woodcarving at the age of five, and has refined it as time’s gone on. He’s completed a realm of projects ranging from furniture to jewelry cases, gavels and even a toy-sized rhinoceros. ”I started going to craft shows, and the birds were the only things that really sold,” Larson says. “So that drew me to birds.” It also drew him to entering his work in competitions, as the clusters of prize ribbons on his wall attest.
Once he had caught the bird-carving fever, Larson used much of his spare time to improve his skills. As a math professor at Walker College for more than 30 years, when he gave students a long math exam he’d bring along a duck-in-progress and his carving tools and get some work done at his desk. “I guess I was a multitasker back then,” he recalls.
“I carved for a long time but I didn’t know how to paint,” he says, “so I got different books to study. I decided to learn it the same way I studied Calculus, doing it over and over, a little bit at a time.” He also credits a painting class from D.J. Brasfield for helping him learn technique.
The painting comes last, though. What comes first, Larson says, even before a blade touches wood, is learning the anatomy of the birds he crafts. It’s a complicated subject with its own jargon, such as “coverts,” referring to the various groups of feathers on a bird’s body. “There are primary coverts, secondary coverts, lesser coverts and so on,” he says. “The feathers might look like they all have the same kinds of features, but there are a lot of differences.”
Most of his learning has been by experience and instruction books. Asked at what age he first felt confident in his carving abilities, Larson’s answer is a simple one: “Never. I’m always developing. Every time I look at something I’ve done, I see a mistake that I need to improve on. I don’t think I’ll ever feel satisfied.”
The joy of Tupelo wood
One of those learning experiences was finding what he considers the perfect wood for duck carving. It’s called Tupelo wood, he says, and its lightness and texture make it the best choice and a favorite with carvers everywhere from the Gulf Coast to Canada. (Oddly enough, the city of Tupelo, Miss., was named for the wood and not vice versa.)
Larson doesn’t have a workshop, preferring to carve in the soft window light at his kitchen table. “This is the factory,” his wife jokes. He uses the basement only to saw blocks of wood in preparation for new projects.
Some of his first carving ventures were replicas of the birds he’d see at his backyard feeder: chickadees, titmice and cardinals. But that source of material ran dry when cats moved into the neighborhood, and he decided to take the feeder down. “The red-headed woodpecker is one of my favorites,” he says. It’s too bad that you rarely see many of them around anymore.” He’s found that inspiration comes from unlikely places, though. Years ago he was driving home from the college and when he turned onto Briarcliff Road he saw a loon walking along the roadside. “I took several pictures of it,” he says, “and that encouraged me to write off for a book and study the anatomy. I ended up making several half-size loons. I didn’t make the full size, because it would take forever.” Not to mention outsizing the average shelf.
He’s also found that his hobby provides not just an education in craftsmanship, but nature and geography as well. “Did you know that the loon is the state bird of Minnesota?” he asked. “I know they live on the Gulf Coast, and that they dive down and eat fish. The one I saw must have been migrating back up north. The loon is actually kind of a primitive bird. I guess it really hasn’t developed that much since ancient times.” He’s also made a few of Alabama’s state bird, the yellowhammer, technically known as the Northern flicker.
Over the years Larson’s taken breaks from bird-carving to create musical instruments: one is a traditional Russian stringed instrument known as the balalaika, which he says was his most challenging project. The curved back appears, at first glance, to be a single piece of wood. It’s only with a close look, ideally with the help of a magnifying glass, that the seams of the wood — seven separate triangular pieces — become visible.
“I’d thought, ‘Well, this is like a box. It should be easy.’ But at one point while I was working on it, I had to stop and go back to making birds for a while.”
When asked what started him on his long carving journey, he says, “I don’t know. There’s just kind of a joy there.
“When the weather’s not too cool or too hot, I sit outside to carve. Then I just let the chips fall where they may.”
Editor’s note: An exhibition of Larson’s work is currently on display at the Carl Elliott Regional Library.