At the recent Canadian championships, I was privileged to spend best part of the day with Ken Hussey and Tim Forler, and through Ken I came to appreciate in a way I had never done before the class of carving known as Contemporary Antique.
I was anxious to know more and when I asked Ken if I could visit him at his home in Brantford and see his workshop he agreed instantly.
It was serendipitous, and richly deserved, that for the first time in the history of the Canadian championship one of Ken's works in the Contemporary Antiques category won "Best in Show." It was proudly displayed for me to see along with the rosettes and plaque presented to him.
It is such a splendid work, and Ken placed a couple of his decorative carvings with it, to show the evolution of his work from his early days when he did real life representations of shorebirds and ducks, to his present oeuvre.
Ken came to carving relatively late in life in 1983 and did so initially as the practical response of a hunter who wanted better decoys. From this developed a love of bird carving in all its forms.
Contemporary Antique was first introduced as a category in the World Championships held in Ocean City, MD each year only in 2007, a very recent addition to the many classifications already in existence.
Ken has had the great good fortune to have come to know Larry Barth, probably the finest exponent of this art form extant in the world, and to have been tutored by Larry on several occasions. Ken says that Larry is as considerate and kind a gentleman as one could wish to meet, and based on my interactions with carvers I have little difficulty accepting this assessment. (For a great insight into Larry Barth and his work see Birds, Art & Design, Stackpole Books, Larry Barth (2015).)
Ken has taught many people over the years and still does an annual teaching stint at the Haliburton School of the Arts. Who knows but perhaps one of his students may go on to eclipse the best the world has to offer today?
Wood carving has its origins deeply rooted in North America, and is essentially still a uniquely North American art form, but other countries around the world are getting into the field, especially decorative carving. Ken recounted to me seeing a carver from China at the world championship, a fellow known as a National Treasure, followed everywhere by a Chinese television crew, no doubt with state-mandated sycophantic zeal!
I had not realized that carvers often create clay models of works they are contemplating before ever starting work on a piece of wood. This gives them the freedom to work out their design concepts ahead of starting the actual work and permits them to rethink and modify without investing hours of effort that may not produce the desired result.
We talked at some length about painting, and Ken explained to me how the process is always begun with a coat of Gesso, a white paint mixture consisting of a binder mixed with chalk, gypsum or pigment, or a combination of these components, to serve as a base before applying decorative colours. To create the work of fine art you see on the display table at a show can take between thirty and forty hours! This is not a chore to be tackled by the faint of heart!
In his early days of decorative carving Ken was approved to borrow skins from the Royal Ontario Museum to establish colour and dimensional accuracy, but has not done so in recent years as he has concentrated on contemporary antiques, which are stylistic to a degree and not having dimensional precision as an imperative.
In order to create his work, he has closely studied the output of many artisans spanning over a century, and taken the best of different genres and blended them into one representing his own distinct style. One of the influences that has predominated for him is the work known as the Toronto School (Warren, Reeves and Wills), whose principal occupation was boat building at Ashbridges Bay. Ken signs all of his work with his distinct brand.
His fondest dream is that perhaps one day people might refer to a "Hussey" in the same way that he now cites the Toronto School.
Decoys manufactured by the Toronto School are distinctive, having a thin bottom board and are hollow, most of the interior wood having been removed, thus being very lightweight.
When working with students Ken makes an initial pencil sketch of the subject contemplated and then creates final plans on the computer, a copy of which is presented to each novice carver to guide him or her through the process.
Ken showed me the procedure whereby he pares down the initial block of wood to get to the right size and begins to establish the contours.
Often the head is created separately and attached to the body. If the entire bird were to be carved from one block of wood there would be a great deal of waste, so fusing the head to the body is both practical and economical.
Waterfowl are not the only family for which decoys are created. Depicted below is a Mourning Dove.
Books are an important part of every carver's resource material.
And past successes are there to be celebrated and to act as the impetus to continue to do better.
The shelves in a carver's workshop speak for themselves in a fashion more eloquent than I could ever hope to.
On the drive home, I was pondering what seems to be a bit of an oddity, unique perhaps to the fine art of carving. Other than for the competition for the annual duck stamp in the United States, pictorial artists do not enter pictures into a show and have their pictures judged against others to be awarded prizes at different levels. Yet this is an integral part of the year of the bird carver and to win is something eagerly pursued by all. The resulting prestige, to say nothing of the financial reward, is significant.
So what did I take away from my time with Ken? A renewed and even greater esteem for this wonderful creative pursuit, certainly; the degree of excellence achieved is simply staggering. But most of all, what I took away, is the sheer grace and friendliness of the artists involved, their absolute love for what they do, the constant striving to achieve a better result, the drive to portray nature at its finest. This year was superb; next year will be better.
Thank you Ken for your kind hospitality and your willingness, eagerness even, to share your knowledge with me, and to enable me to understand in some small measure the creative spirit that motivates your daily life. I salute you and all your kind. May you long produce works of beauty for all to enjoy.