Bird is the word for master carver

Jun 20, 2023

“There’s a loon behind you.” 

It was an odd thing to hear, standing in the Tarpaulin Avenue home and studio of carver Larry Bertrand. And yet, Bertrand’s warning was accurate. There were indeed loons — aquatic birds found in North America, Europe and Asia — perched throughout the room. There were also eagles, bluebirds, hawks, egrets, kingfishers, seagulls, ravens, ducks, swans, owls and sparrows. 

Bertrand, 82, is a “master carver,” and it says so on his business card. He has whittled away the last four decades making exquisitely detailed models of the birds that have fascinated him his entire life. 

“I think they’re unique,” he said. “The way birds seem to be able to communicate, the way that they move, their migration. There seems to be a mystery about birds that humans don’t understand yet.”

A typical day for Bertrand is waking up at 5 a.m., going to the gym, going to his job as a construction supervisor and spending at least an hour in his studio every evening. 

From the very first time he carved, when he was a Boy Scout in Worcester, he has found it relaxing.

“Ever since then, I’ve had a knife in my hand,” he said. “It’s something you can do that’s comfortable. You can be creative. You can cut yourself.”

Bertrand carved his first bird in 1985. Since then, he has taken carving classes taught by “world masters,” has extensively studied bird anatomy and has entered his sculptures in global competitions.

“Want to see a cool little bird?” He said, pulling out another carving of a sparrow. “This is a snotty little guy… Look at the attitude on that face.” 

One of his most prized carvings is one of his “big failures,” a botched carving of a duck. He admits it “looks like hell,” but it was “such a mess” that he felt obligated to keep it.

“Sometimes if you do mess it up,” he said, “you can use it to create something that could be of interest. I think it’s really cool.” 

Bertrand spends so much time in his studio that he no longer notices the strong smell of wood. 

“I don’t have any idea how much money I’ve spent on tools,” he said, “and I don’t want to figure that out.” 

Before carving, Bertrand reads as much as he can about the bird he is going to portray. It doesn’t improve the quality of the artwork, he said, but it builds a relationship between himself and his subject, his muse.

“I like to get to know a bird before I start to carve it,” he said. “Know its habits, its habitat, its migration patterns.” 

Every bird starts as a block of wood. From there, a living creature begins to take flight. Bertrand saws the outline of the bird, then outlines the feathers with a pencil and knife before using a wood burner to sear in the pattern.

“If you took a knife and ran it through a piece of wood,” he said, “and got that feeling, and tried to create something with it, you may understand. It’s kind of hard to describe.” 

Mozart plays on the radio as Bertrand works. He is surrounded by photographs of family members and pets, and a vast collection of corks collected from bottles of wine. He likes the texture of them. 

That same preoccupation with texture compels him to painstakingly etch every single feather — 32 strands per inch — on each carving. 

He deliberately puts imperfections in the feathers to make them as lifelike as possible. 

“You can spend hours doing this detail,” he said, “fooling around with it, but that’s why it takes so long to carve these babies.”

One sculpture of a crow took him over 600 hours — and that was before he stopped counting. 

After the initial sculpture is complete, Bertrand paints them with oils or acrylics, capturing extremely subtle variations in the tone of their feathers.

“There’s layers of paint on these birds,” he said. “You have to mix your colors, you have to be pretty careful. There's lots of different details on these little guys.” 

His carving of a raven is due for a coat of iridescent paint, which will give its feathers a glossy sheen. Bertrand wants it to look like the sun is glinting off of the raven’s soaring wings. 

“Very, very, very interesting birds,” he said. “I think they’re really awesome little creatures.”

Bertrand spent four days researching ravens at a sanctuary for them in New York. He is amazed by how they communicate with other animals to track food sources, but they aren’t his favorite birds. He simply can’t pick a favorite.

“I think every bird has a lot of unique features,” he said. 

Bertrand plans to carve for “whatever’s left” of his life. He now works in the studio alongside his 13-year-old grandson, who has taken up interest in two of his grandfather’s biggest passions — carving and sailing. 

Once, when Bertrand was sailing to the Caribbean, a bird flew into his boat. 

“That’s not a good omen for a sailor,” he said, “if the bird flies in and dies.”

The bird did not die. He took that as a good omen.