“SPIRITS IN WOOD”
Distinctive Wood Carving
Wildlife Sculpture & Caricature Characters
Rob Arnberger started carving in 1977 when he served a tour of duty in the Ozark Country of Northern Arkansas as a National Park Ranger. “I fell in love with caricature carving trying to capture a story in a wood figure, using only knives and gauges to free a humorous face and figure out of a block of wood”. Growing up in the southwest and working as a park ranger in many parks across the U.S. gave Arnberger a particular perspective on carving. Several years later Rob got interested in decoy carving which led him to realistic bird carving.
The focus of this article will be on Rob’s distinctive realistic bird sculptures. “Capturing the essence of bird life and releasing the spirit and personality of a wild bird out of a block of wood is one of the most challenging aspects of my bird carving.” Placing the bird in a correct habitat adds further realism to the carving. Bird carving must focus on realism and extreme detail. Success is measured when the finished wood bird “comes alive and tries to fly away.”
“I try to capture that one special second of a bird’s life. It may be a pose of alertness or one that expresses total calm. It may be a pose where the bird is at a flower, or hiding in the branches, or singing to the sky. I want you to see the bird as it lives in the wild and in the correct environment.”
Arnberger’s success in carving and painting birds has been noted by increasing numbers of collectors who proudly display his birds. Many collectors commission specific birds in special poses and in special habitats. Arnberger creates his birds from Tupelo, a favorite bird carver’s wood using a variety of small, yet sophisticated micro-power detail tools, flexible shaft power tools, and burning instruments that create the feather detail so important to a correct rendition of the bird. The birds are realistically painted in acrylics and frequently can take hundreds of hours to complete. And, sometimes the habitat they are placed in can be as complex and time consuming as the carving of the bird itself.
Over his carving career Arnberger has been represented by galleries in Tucson, Tubac, Ventura, Austin and Santa Fe. He has won numerous awards at carving shows but now confines his work to selected galleries and collector commissions. Visit his website at www.spiritsinwood.com to examine his portfolio of completed carvings available for sale or special commissions.
“I enjoy carving lesser known, but still distinctive small birds and find that creating the detail and painting the softness of some of these “little bundle of feathers” can be more challenging than some of the more heroic and larger birds. But, I enjoy both and really don’t have a reason to carve one bird over another except in an interest in their natural history, or their color, or maybe wishing to express some sort of artistic vision.” Because I live in the southwest, I like to focus on the birds we find here rather than on birds you might never observe here.
A favorite is the carvings of two Cactus Wrens titled “Intruder”. One of the wrens is perched above the other and clearly making a racket, the mouth wide open and the bird is hunched over squawking at an interloper who seems immune to the upset bird. “I have seen this interplay in my own backyard and wanted to capture this moment in the lives of these two birds”.
A favorite of many birdwatchers and collectors seems to be hummingbirds. Rob has carved quite a few commissions of different species of hummers over the years. But one of his favorites is the Costas Hummingbird Pair titled “Red Yucca Delight”. This carving has been accepted by the prestigious Tohono Chul Park to be shown in a new exhibit titled, “Pollinators: The Art of Interdependence” opening Memorial Day going through the end of August. The exhibit presents paintings, photography and sculptures that focus on the importance of pollinators in the Sonoran Desert.
Rob’s background in the National Park Service (he served as the superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park from 1994 – 2000) gives him an appreciation of how art can also educate. An exquisite carving of a tiny elf owl that won several carving ribbons has found its way to the El Paso City Zoo. About a year ago Rob was contacted by a friend at the El Paso Zoo interested in purchasing his elf owl carving titled "Night Hunters" in order to incorporate the carving into an educational exhibit at the zoo. We just received these photos of the exhibit and carving and comments from Rick LoBello at the zoo who had this to say about it all: "I was reminded to take a picture of one of Rob's great pieces of artwork. This elf owl, carved by Rob, lives in the El Paso Water Utilities Discovery Education Center at the El Paso Zoo where we are teaching little kids about water conservation and our Chihuahuan Desert."
The carving captures a minute in the life of two hunters of the night....a tiny elf owl and a giant desert centipede. The elf owl prevailed and is enjoying his nightly meal. Rob says that "it is always gratifying to sell a carving to someone that appreciates it but it is something very special to have a carving incorporated into an educational exhibit that teaches little kids about life in the desert."
A just finished commission of a Green Heron also captured some awards in the prestigious Desert Woodcarving Show in Mesa, Arizona February 18 & 19, 2012. Rob’s commissioned carving of a Green Heron in Mating Plumage titled “Water’s Edge” won a blue ribbon in the advanced Wading and Shore Birds Category. It also won First Place for all Advanced Bird Carvings. This beautiful bird was commissioned by a client in Virginia who wanted her “favorite bird” carved in a distinctive pose. Rob was able to capture the bird in beautiful plumage, one foot tucked up into the chest area, standing on the other lone leg with the head cocked to the side with a “grumpy old man” look. The bird certainly does have a personality. It is now in flight to its new home in Virginia.
An example to two birds of the same species carved to represent “different seconds of time and space” is represented by an American Kestrel. The first carving is titled “Vigilance” showing a bird clearly on the alert, feathers tight and flat, the eyes clearly focused on something of interest.
The second carving is titled “Leaning into a Winter Wind” showing the same species in a different setting, feathers puffed out and blown and the body of the bird in a hunched pose trying to stay warm.
A full sized Prairie Falcon titled “Sentinel” with mouth open uttering a falcon scream demonstrates the extreme realism of Rob’s work. If you look closely inside the mouth of this bird you can see the blood vessels in the roof of the mouth and the proper attachment of the tongue.
One of his favorites is the White-Crowned Sparrow pair titled “Sitting on the Fence”. “I just wanted to capture that one little minute when one bird lets loose with a song capturing the interest of another who perches on an old rusty fence wire”. “It is a simple but complex moment…which is typical of birds!”
“One of the most difficult commissions I ever did was of a Raven. It was not only a large bird with very distinctive features but how do you paint the black of a Raven when the “black” is really a combination of a variety of colors that display different values when the sun shines on them?”
A favorite of Rob’s was a carving of a Yellow Warbler stationed on the tip of an Ocotillo Branch titled “Lookout”. “It was a simple setting…a tiny yellow bird stationed atop a spiny branch. But it was complex to position this small bird naturally and alertly on the tip of an Ocotillo fashioned and carved from dowels and toothpicks!”
Another difficult pose was of a Hooded Oriole on a Cholla Cactus Branch complete with blossoms titled “Spring Blooms”. The Cholla cactus was fashioned exactly from one in my yard…the very one that I had seen the Oriole visit in fact. Creating the cactus took longer than the bird and each spine was accurately represented using straight pins. “I bled when creating that cactus…I probably won’t ever do another one!”
Collection of Shani and Jon Friedman
Rob also tries to capture the essence of bird and flowers. His carving of a Gold Finch Pair titled “Flash of Gold” brings the color and form of three sunflowers into context with a male and female Gold Finch pair.
His carving of a Painted Bunting on a Purple Coneflower titled “Garden Jewel” brings the vibrant colors of bird and flower together as one. Rob remarks that, “it is impossible to do this bird full credit because it is so wonderfully colorful it is almost impossible to capture realistically and show the subtlety of this wildly colorful bird.”
Rob is not just after carving the best known birds but is also interested in carving birds that might be lesser known….like the carving of a Painted Redstart on a cottonwood branch title “Waiting Perch”.
Or the drab looking but distinctive “Curve-Bill Thrasher” that occupies a shelf in a client’s home.
Or the distinctive carving of Vermillion Flycatcher that went to a client that loved the way these little birds “flitted about the fields along the Santa Cruz River.”
Rob is presently carving a full sized Red Tailed Hawk that will be very unique. It will be crafted to be sitting on a branch that one can hang from the wall….so the bird will actually occupy a place on wall realistically jutting out from the wall on a branch. “This has been a very challenging project for me…just the size and scale of this project is time consuming….and there are so many things to get wrong about this bird that is so emblematic of Southern Arizona raptors.”
“This carving is not yet destined for a client so I am hopeful that a special person will step forward as I begin to finish it. I have several hundred of hours in the project so far and have not started to paint it yet!”
A visit to Rob’s website, www.spiritsinwood.com gives a broad treatment of the carvings in collections and those still available for purchase. “All of my carvings are labors of love….I won’t do a commission unless it also interests me and will present a unique opportunity to learn something new or place it in a setting that speaks for itself.” At his website you can also view some project slide shows that show Rob actually cutting the bird out of a block of wood to completion of the “almost living specimen”. Rob has demonstrated his art at the store and really enjoys talking about carving with folks who love birds. We encourage you to visit his website where there are more examples and great photos of his sculptures that might encourage your interest in a unique, one of a kind piece of bird art for your home.