To say that Maine artist Wendell Gilley “wrote the book” on decorative bird-carving is both a statement of fact and an understatement. The one-time plumber pioneered the art of bird carving, not only crafting thousands of stunningly lifelike avians over the course of a 50-year career, but also inspiring and teaching countless others to do the same. While much of his work was sold, a collection of over 300 pieces saved by his wife now form the bulk of one of the only dedicated bird-carving museums in the country: the Wendell Gilley Museum.
Gilley spent decades repairing oil burners, leaky faucets, and burst pipes throughout his hometown of Southwest Harbor, Maine. A duck hunter on the side, he grew enamored with the birds’ iridescent plumage, inspiring him to take a course on taxidermy. His artistic whim took another turn on a trip to Boston’s Natural History Museum, where a series of miniature bird-carvings by Elmer Cromwell inspired him to begin carving on his own. He began by selling small-scale carvings to Abercrombie & Fitch before graduating to larger pieces, all while welcoming friends and visitors into his open-door studio. At age 52, he was able to sell his plumbing company and turn to bird-carving full-time.
Gilley continued to be a dedicated bird-carver for decades, publishing The Art of Bird Carving in 1976 and carving an estimated “10,000 birds of pine and paint” by the 1980s (a lover of alliteration, Gilley carved most of his birds out of basswood for this particular purpose). When his collection outgrew the humble “Bird Shop” exhibit his wife helped curate, they opened his namesake museum in 1981.
While “bird-carving museum” may evoke images of sitting ducks, Gilley’s work is anything but. Within the permanent collection, there’s an osprey mid-hunt, a squirming mackerel at the end of a pair of glistening talons a trio of bobwhites taking flight; a brown pelican perched atop a dock piling, two fish tails hanging lazily from its bill; a defiant bald eagle huddled over freshly caught prey; a badling of ducks preening their feathers on a piece of driftwood; and much more. With the collection representing over a half-century of work, Gilley’s long journey to mastery comes into focus. His very first piece (a miniature mallard drake) juxtaposed with one of his very last (a life-sized king eider drake), illustrates a decades-long artistic obsession with and dedication to evoking avian beauty. All of which is not to say that this museum is just for passive viewing.
Besides workshops on birding and bird drawing, the museum’s longtime artist-in-residence Steven Valleau holds carving workshops often centered around a single bird. There’s even an on-site gift shop selling a variety of carving tools to get you started. If you think it’s too late to become a convincing carver yourself, Wendell Gilley’s legacy might disagree.