Skills bring birds to life in wood

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A lifelong love of native birds inspires artist Luke Anthony of Ranfurly to create highly accurate wood carvings.

“I trained as a graphic artist, but I have an aptitude for building models and things so when I got employed at the Canterbury Museum as a graphic artist, I got transferred sideways into exhibition building,” Mr Anthony said.

“While I was there I took every opportunity to collect as much data about birds and take photos of the collection that I had access to,” Mr Anthony said.

Mr Anthony used all native woods, recycled from previous use, including matai – “from a windowsill”, totara – “from a fencepost”, broadleaf and kauri.

As a child, a book called Decoy Ducks, written by Bob Ridges, sparked Mr Anthony’s imagination.

“I read it when I was a boy, and that’s what inspired me,” he said.

The thought percolated away for many years that he could take cues from carving ducks and use them to carve native birds, Mr Anthony said.

Utilising weighty tomes like the seven-volume Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic birds by the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union, Mr Anthony looked at measurements including the beak, toes, and body to ensure he had accurate proportions.

“I can take a photo of a bird and if it’s perfectly profile, and I know how long his beak is I can actually blow it up to the correct size,” he said.

“It’s sort of like detective work, in a way. I just collect every New Zealand book,” he said.

Generally, he worked from photographs, “But there are some talented artists that draw almost as good as photos – like [New Zealand painter] Raymond Harris-Ching.”

A meticulous focus on accuracy permeates each bird that Mr Anthony carves.

“At this stage I’m just doing the research and getting them as accurate as I can,” he said.

Mr Anthony uses artist’s acrylics to create accurate colouring, and a wood burning tool to help define individual features.

“It’s what they call a pyrography tool, which in layman’s terms is just a burner.

“Most kids who have done wood shop are familiar with it because they’ve burnt their names into their projects.”

Different tips allowed for precise use of the pyrography tool, with which Mr Anthony created individual feather outlines.

“It helps raise the shaft of the feather without having to carve it, and on some birds you can see the burning colour define the feathers,” he said.

“On the bigger birds, like the kea, I have to carve every feather individually, and paint every feather individually, rather than doing blocks of colour,” Mr Anthony said.

Although he acknowledged the skill of a good taxidermist, with his wooden sculptures “you know that no bird had died, and because I salvage the wood, I’m not destroying their habitat, I’m just repurposing things that possibly would have got burned or chucked away”.

Mr Anthony is a member of the artists collective at Hullabaloo Art Space in Cromwell, where his works can be found.