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Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Ken Hussey, a Master Carver and a Fine Gentleman

     Over several years I have developed an appreciation for that unique form of great art produced by wood carvers (who are also consummate painters), especially when it involves birds; I might even say almost exclusively when it involves birds! I have invested a few dollars in my own collection!
     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.


Ken Hussey
     A rudimentary insight was gained by listening to Ken as he explained some of the processes involved in creating this genre, right from the initial thought process, before a knife ever touches a block of wood, through to the final dab of paint on the finished bird.
     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.

66 comments:

  1. I admire his great talent and would love to see him create one of these beauties.

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  2. A unique look behind the talent! It is interesting to see the process photos. I imagine it is hard for Ken and other artisans to part with their decoys that take so many hours to create.

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  3. Not the least of Ken's talents is, he is a great instructor as well.

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  4. He's a master at his craft. Beautiful carvings, amazing to see.

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  5. Hari OM
    What a privilege to see the artisan at work - thank you for bringing that to us! YAM xx

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  6. What a wonderful follow-up post. I had to smile when I saw that it was practical considerations that got him started down this path. Do you happen to know what kind of wood he was working in the photos? It's an interesting grain.

    The last two photos are wonderful, but so are those of the shelves. The seemingly jointed human figure in the upper left of the first shelf photo looks like toys we used to have; I suspect Ken has amused more than a few children with a toy now and then.

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    1. He uses white cedar for the decoy type carvings. Most carvers of decorative art prefer tupelo.

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  7. Impressive art and work, David! Interesting to watch the prosess of making the birds. The white owl was made very beautiful.

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  8. Ken's workshop looks like a real Aladdin's cave and I imagine how bewitching it must be so see him carve a block of wood and give birth to a delicate bird. I am full of admiration for such skilled people.

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  9. Hi David.

    Beautiful what Ken has made.
    Super how this goes and you could see this and make us part of it.
    Also nice to read that head and body do not consist of one piece and are joined together.
    How wonderful that Ken can do all of this.

    Thank you for showing.

    Greeting from Patricia.

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  10. Hi David - that must have been fascinating to see how Ken works ... beautiful sculptures. I was interested that he makes clay models first, before tackling the piece of wood he's chosen. I wonder where he gets the wood from ... whether he sources it when he's out and about ... or hears about trees being cut down ...

    I love the work they do ... following the grain of the wood - but he obviously is really an exceptional woodsman, artist, sculpture and lover of his practice - it certainly shows in the photos you've given us.

    Those shelves of models are they discarded ones? Or waiting to be finished off ... fascinating to see how he uses computers to help guide his students ...

    Wonderful - thank you - cheers Hilary

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    1. Hi Hilary: Much of the wood is purchased from "known" suppliers of wood suitable for carving. As to the status of some of the items on the shelf only Ken would know!

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    2. Love the new header - the little Dunnock ... thanks for answering ... cheers H

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  11. Such skill! Fascinating to read a little into how the process works, I can see why you wanted to visit.

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  12. Hello, your friend Ken is a talented artist. His carvings are beautiful. It would be fun to watch him at work. Thanks for sharing your visit. Have a happy day!

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  13. Hermosos y preciosos trabajos los de esos artesanos amigo David. Son verdaderos maestros en el arte de tallar la madera y sus obras, deben de adquirir un prestigio internacional al igual que la obra de cualquier pintor. Es de admirar y como excelentes maestros deben impartir clases para que ese arte nunca se pierda si no todo lo contrario que se fomente y se enseñe.
    Un fuerte y afectuoso abrazo amigo David.

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  14. A great artist David. Love those wooden birds. Is there some one who carves Peregrine Falcons?
    Regards,
    Roos

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    1. Hello Roos: I have seen several carvings of Peregrine Falcon. If I see one at the next show, or when I visit another carver, I will be sure to take a picture.

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    2. Thank you David, for your answer. I am looking foreward to see it.
      Roos

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  15. He is a craftsman and an artist. I really like the simple style of his wood duck winner.

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  16. En stor talang du har fått träffa David! Men jag gissar att det krävs så mycket mera för att bli en så skicklig skulptör som din vän Ken. Tack för ett mycket trevligt inlägg, det är en stor ära att vinna Best in Show.

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  17. How great birds! Great skill to do them. Would love to try to do them. What Wood are Birds?

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  18. Exquisite craftsmanship. the way he showed, explained the process to you in person must have been a fulfilling experience.

    The NW Indian art seems to be incorporated in his work.

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  19. What a great article about a truly talented man. As always you give us much to think about and appreciate.

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  20. Me encantan estas personas que saben cómo dar vida a una pieza de madera o metal. Tienen una paciencia infinita y una imaginación increíble, así como mucho arte en sus manos. Son auténticos artitas. Gracias David por compartir.
    Buen miércoles.
    Un abrazo

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    1. Seguro que son buenos artistas, Laura. Un abrazo también.

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  21. He is an excellent craftsman and artist.
    His work is just beautiful.

    All the best Jan

    PS I do like your new header.

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  22. Oh, my, how wonderful, especially the snowy owl. My dad was a woodcarver — he would have loved to see these.

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  23. Hi David,
    What an experience to spend some time with these gents. I am always full of admiration for anybody that's artistic, I unfortunately am as artistic as a house brick in a glasshouse.
    I have a pal thats a carver and I find it fascinating to watch as the subjects develop all through the process, to the feather patterning followed by the painting, all so artistic.
    All the best and thank you, John

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  24. Wow, such stunning carvings, but the owl really caught my eye. I have a pair of ducks which I am quite fond of and I also have a hornbill which is excellent. The latter needs a rub down though and a new coat of paint which I must get around to doing. He used to hang to the garden in RSA and the weather has taken its toll somewhat. Cheers Diane

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  25. Fantastic wood carving David, lovely man.

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  26. What a FABULOUS post! I loved seeing Kens work and hearing his story.Thank you once again for what you write on this blog. Just like the carvers, you get better and more inspiring with each one.

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  27. First of all, David, your new header photo is lovely!
    What a fascinating post - the carvings are so beautiful (and the little owl is the sweetest of all). It would be lovely to have a carving like that embellishing the home.
    I too became interested to know what wood is used. Does white cedar mean Chamaecyparis thyoides or Thuja occidentalis? Is tupelo Nyssa sylvatica?

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    1. I am not sure of the exact species, and I have not been able to verify it so far. I will see if I can find out and get back to you.

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    2. Hi again Sara: the Tupelo seems to be predominantly Nyassa aquatica. Based on preliminary responses it seems that white cedar is pretty much the species native to the area where the carver resides.

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  28. Hi David,
    He is a real craftsman. His carved statues show great scholarship.
    Greetings, Kees

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  29. A very interesting post and the carvings are just wonderful. It is always good to see a talented craftsman at work :)

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  30. what a great experience for you to enjoy. i thoroughly enjoyed the last few paragraphs of this entry, i think all artists are special people, kind and generous. when someone else appreciates what we have created it is so rewarding. i love sharing my photographs with other people, most people only pretend to enjoy and appreciate them. it is the same with my crafts and knitting, i feel like i should pay people to act interested!!

    i am certain he appreciated your interest and love for his craft...what a talented man he is!!

    would you consider showing us your collection?

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  31. Fascinating post. Thanks for sharing this!

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  32. Maravilloso, unas tallas preciosas. Besitos.

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  33. I found the Championships an eye opener to this craft. It's wonderful that you have been able to enlighten me further.

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  34. What a talented man! I enjoyed reading your post. I love the 'Best in Show' piece!

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  35. Very interesting post about Ken Hussey showing how he works, the intimacy of his workshop and the numerous works of art on the shelves showing the different stages of his work. I learned a lot about this technique, I never imagined the process of carving and assembly, nor the previous clay models before carving.
    Congratulations for the note and I will be following while I can the news on your blog, tomorrow I travel to Uruguay and I will not be publishing for more than a week in my page.
    Un gran abrazo

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  36. Hi David. I am afraid I have no real answer to the question you posed. Birding and to a lesser extent, nature study, has always been a predominantly male preserve in the UK. Perhaps it is because males have always had more spare time to devote to their weekend hobbies and interests than the typical female who by UK tradition has stuck to home life and all that entails. That has changed in recent years in the UK with more females taking up birding and ringing but they are still outnumbered by, I would guess, 80/20 at least.
    This may be a subject for further research and comparison by a student of sociology rather than ornithology? Country by country there would vast differences and I'm sure there are worse examples than our own just as Canada excels.

    Ken is a fine example of a man devoted to his lifelong hobby! His work is much more involved than we might imagine at first glance.

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  37. Such a talent. I wish I could translate my thoughts into something crafty like this. The Wood Duck is so colourful too.

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  38. Hello, David.
    I am stopping back to say thank you for linking up your post. The carvings are all amazing. Your friend is really talented. Have a great day and weekend. PS, thanks for leaving a comment on my blog.

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  39. Hello David. Interesting post. The carving are fantastic!

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  40. nice story about a talent man...thank you for sharing.
    have a great day

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  41. Magnificent carvings ~ favorite is the owl ~

    Happy Days to you,
    A ShutterBug Explores,
    aka (A Creative Harbor)

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  42. That is so interesting! He is an amazing artist and an inspiration to us all. I am always trying to learn new skills...especially in art! Thanks for sharing this story, Davie. He is fantastic!

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  43. Now thats a skill!

    I think I'll enter myself in the contemporary antique section of life's competition - its how I feel by Friday of most weeks!

    Cheers - Stewart M _ Melbourne

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    1. Ah but you still look young and virile, Stewart, and you can outwalk most men half your age. Niw if I look in the mirror there's a contemporary antique!

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  44. Wow! We have quite a few carvers around here. I am always amazed with their work.

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  45. What a fantastic post David. It's unbelievable what human hands are able to create.
    Have a wonderful day.

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  46. Thank you for that fascinating insight, David. The more I see, the greater the respect I have for this art-form.

    My love to you both - - - Richard

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  47. Beautiful work and I enjoyed seeing the “process” photos as well. We were at Ding Darling NWR a few years ago and saw a display of the National winners...I’m sure some your friend’s art was included. I was in awe. As I still am.

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  48. HI David,
    It is a very special craftsmanship! So beautiful created all! Interesting to see the process as well. The set on the last pictures are also very nice to see.
    Great.
    Regards, Maria

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  49. As you might guess, I find this post incredibly fascinating. Any time I learn something related to an art form, I am intrigued, especially when it is one in which I have little, if any, real knowledge. I am so impressed by all you shared with us. The craftsmanship, skill, research and dedication shows to each piece is impressive and I am equally impressed by his generosity in sharing his skills as what I can imagine is quite an effective teacher. Thanks for introducing him to us.

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  50. Hi my friend David,
    this man is a real artist and one who really understands his profession.
    The most beautiful sculptures made of wood pass by, whereby you have been enchanted by that owl !!!! Beautiful work and very nice that you have paid attention to this !!
    Thank you for sharing.
    Dear greetings from me, Helma xx

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