The Souls 
 Of Birds

Saturday, November 15, 2014
Floyd Scholz, one of the world’s leading bird carvers, lives atop a mountain in Hancock, Vt. The view from his house looks south down the narrow White River Valley. It’s the kind of panorama a hawk would have if it hitched a ride on the thermal updrafts from the nearby Green Mountains that allow raptors to soar and circle without expending too much energy.

As Scholz sweeps his arm in an expansive gesture from east to west, he spots a flock of wild turkeys, heads down, slowly picking their way across his field looking for food. It’s fitting that a man famous for making sculptures of birds has chosen to live in a place where he’s surrounded by them, and particularly by raptors: the hawks, eagles, owls and falcons that are, in his view, the kings and princes of the sky.

“I don’t do wimpy birds, I do alpha birds,” Scholz said.

Not too many people in life set out to be professional bird carvers, but Scholz had an inkling early on that he was headed in the direction of, if not carving, then something to do with the study or conservation of birds. “I’ve always loved birds,” he said.

Why?

He smiles, as if this is a slightly dopey question, and flaps his hands. “They fly.”

Scholz grew up in Fairfield, Conn., in the 1960s and ’70s. Woods and fields were still plentiful, and because the town also sits on Long Island Sound, Scholz saw both waterfowl and woodland birds. Southern Connecticut and the southwestern shore of Long Island also had a tradition of decoy carving, Scholz said.

His father and his uncles spent a lot of time outdoors, hunting and fishing in Connecticut and Maine, and took Scholz with them. One uncle by marriage, a Hungarian immigrant named George Csefai, was, Scholz said, an “incredibly gifted sculptor and artist” who made his own decoys because he couldn’t afford to buy them. Csefai was also a machinist, and Scholz would sneak into his shop and “marvel at what he was carving.” Although Csefai died when Scholz was young, his influence lingered. S cholz began making his own carvings at age 10.

“I was always watching birds. I had a strong interest in nature,” Scholz said.

Birds are all around us, even if we’re not aware of them, he said. They adapt to human populations and are familiar in a way a bobcat or a moose isn’t; even someone who doesn’t pay close attention probably knows what a pigeon is, or a robin, or a chickadee.

“Some of the most intelligent creatures on the planet are birds,” he said. “Ravens, crows, African gray parrots. Birds live in a totally different perceptive world than we do, they see and hear much better than we do.”

Now 56, Scholz is considered one of the best in the world at what he does, and has received numerous awards for his contributions to the field. His sculptures can command between $40,000 and $200,000 ap iece. He sells to museums, corporate collections and private collectors, among them Elizabeth Taylor, the cartoonist Gary Larson and the musician John Sebastian, of The Lovin’ Spoonful.

He has published magazine articles and seven books, including Birds of Prey , Owls: An Artist’s Guide to Understanding Owls and Peregrine Falcon: Dynamic Carving and Painting Techniques for a New Era . He also leads intensive carving workshops during the year, at the Bennington Center for the Arts in Vermont, and in Arizona and Michigan. He and his wife, Beatriz Viney, split their time between Vermont, Florida and Venezuela.

Scholz’ studio is on a lower level of the house. It’s large, with a picture window. There are bird sculptures, in various states of completion, perched on tables around the studio. An eagle and its chicks, an acorn woodpecker, a cardinal, a diving peregrine falcon.

The birds are carved out of tupelo wood, which Scholz and other wood carvers prize because it is lightweight but stable, doesn’t have a pronounced grain that would show through paint, and holds detail remarkably well. He deploys high-speed, precision cutters with industrial diamonds and rubies to reproduce bird feathers, beaks, crests and talons.

“I use everything short of trained termites,” he said.

The prices alone would tell you these are not carvings you bang out in your woodshop on a Sunday afternoon.

“I’m not a wooden taxidermist,” Scholz said. “I have no question that I can take a block of wood and make it look like a living bird.”

What Scholz does is etch bird behavior into wood. It’s not just a question of painstakingly replicating a bird’s anatomy, feathering and coloring, although a Sholtz hawk and a live hawk can look so alike that it would be hard to tell the difference until the live one moved. The question is this: Do birds have souls and personalities? Scholz thinks they do, and that’s what he’s after.

“I try to capture feeling,” he said, pointing to an almost-completed sculpture of a northern goshawk.

Often called the ghost of the forest because of its whitish-gray feathers and its silent stealth as a hunter, the northern goshawk has an implacable, alert yellow eye. “It’s a look of self-assured confidence,” Scholz said.

He’s caught that expression of dominance through the tilt of its head, and the position of its beak and shoulders. When it’s finished, the goshawk will have in its talons a blue jay that it’s just caught.

Scholz’ work is “uncannily realistic,” said Chris Collier, director of on-site interpretation at the Vermont Institute of Natural Sciences in Quechee, who knows Scholz both as a supporter of VINS, and as an artist. “When he came in for (a) program here he brought a northern goshawk he was still working on. It was amazing how detailed it was, the coloration. If you’d seen it from afar sitting in a tree you’d think it was the real bird. He’s a master of his craft.”

Scholz didn’t study art in school, never took an art class, although he’d always been interested in art. In fact, when he was a student at Central Connecticut State University studying for a B.S., in industrial education, he was known for his athletic accomplishments.

In 1979, he was an NCAA decathlon champion, with a good shot at landing a spot on the American team, which would have included Bruce Jenner, headed for the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. Then the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. President Jimmy Carter announced that the U.S. would boycott the games, and Scholz’ (and hundreds of other athletes’) ambitions were dashed. Around the same time his engagement to his girlfriend broke off.

“At the ripe old age of 22, I thought my life had ended,” Scholz said.

Looking for a place, he said, to “wipe the slate clean,” he decided to move to Vermont, which he’d visited as a teenager. Friends of his parents were building a log cabin in Granville, so off he went to nurse his broken heart in splendid, manly isolation. He worked for a local logger, then was hired by a building contractor. He played the banjo and the guitar, and he hiked, looking at the local flora and fauna.

A friend in Connecticut, knowing of Scholz’ interest in bird carving, suggested he try making a crow. Scholz did, and the crow was displayed in a hunting and fishing store in Connecticut. A renowned carver happened to see it there and told Scholz he should take it to the U.S. National Decoy show in Babylon, Long Island. (The U.S. National Decoy show no longer exists.) Scholz did, and won a prize for best in show.

“It was truly one of the most exciting days of my life,” he said. When Scholz eventually sold the crow to a vice president at Bausch & Lomb for the astounding sum of $7,000, his life, he said, “took a 180-degree turn.”

Thirty years of studying birds has only confirmed Scholz’s belief in Darwin’s theory of evolution. He takes out a plaster cast of an archaeopteryx, the dinosaur that is considered the ancestor of modern birds. “Eighty million years ago this little bird fell into the mud in Bavaria,“ he said. He traces with his finger the outline of its skeleton and feet.

The archaeopteryx had scales, rather than feathers, but apart from that the cast’s bone structure l ooks like a bird skeleton. “Feathers are modified scales,” he said. “You’re looking at evolved dinosaurs.”

He has studied the skeletons and musculature of birds extensively to get them right when he carves them in wood. “Even just to look at a feather closely is to see a miracle of engineering; each feather generates lift,” he said.

Nearly everyone has a bird story. Scholz could probably tell hundreds of them, but there’s one that stands out. In the early 1980s he was working as a volunteer with the Peregrine Fund, a conservation organization, originally founded at Cornell University and now based in Idaho, that focuses on birds of prey. The team was up on a ledge on Mt. Horrid in Rochester, off Route 73, tracking a nest of young peregrine falcons learning to fly. The peregrine falcon is the fastest bird on Ea rth, capable of reaching speeds of more than 200 mph when it dives.

The volunteers heard a whistling sound overhead. It was a mourning dove, zigging and zagging, taking evasive maneuvers to avoid the falcon streaking across the sky toward it.

“The sound of the falcon overhead sounded like ripping canvas,” Scholz said. “That expanse of sky slowly closed between them and then,” here he makes an exploding gesture with his hands, “there was this puff of feathers.”

He shakes his head, marveling at the memory of it. It may have been 30 years ago, Scholz said, but “to this day it was like it happened yesterday.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.




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