Bird art in all its glory
SOUTHWEST HARBOR —For more than 30 years, the Wendell Gilley Museum has been a community center that celebrates the life and work of master bird carver Wendell Gilley, inspiring appreciation of the visual arts, engagement in artistic creativity and respect and care for the natural world.
The museum teaches the art of bird carving and presents art exhibitions and educational programs with a mission of connecting people, nature and art.
A pioneer in the field of decorative bird carving, Wendell Gilley wrote “The Art of Bird Carving: A Guide to a Fascinating Hobby” and created 10,000 birds from 1931-1983.
Before gaining renown as a master carver, Gilley was best known around his hometown of Southwest Harbor as a master plumber. Following his grandfather and father into the trade, from 1927 to 1954 Gilley earned his living fixing oil burners, thawing frozen pipes, making tanks for boats and tending to Mount Desert Islanders’ other plumbing needs.
As a young man, Wendell Gilley enjoyed hunting ducks and other game birds. Preparing the birds for cooking, he was taken with the beauty of their feathers and wished that he could “stuff them and save them.” This desire led him to take a correspondence course with The Northwestern School of Taxidermy. The Gilley Plumbing shop soon became a mini-museum of mounted birds.
In 1930, Gilley visited the New England Museum of Natural History in Boston. Although his original intention was to study the taxidermy dioramas, he became intrigued by an exhibit of miniature bird carvings made by Elmer Crowell of East Harwich, Mass. This chance encounter with the famous decoy maker’s work inspired the 26-year-old Wendell Gilley to whittle out a primitive mallard drake miniature. Pleased with his first attempt, he persevered in his new hobby, eventually becoming one of the foremost wood carving artists of his time.
Gilley produced primarily small-scale carvings of song and game birds during the 1930s and ’40s, which he sold to the New York City store Abercrombie and Fitch for $3.75 each. Larger, more detailed bird carvings followed as Gilley honed his talents. At age 52, Gilley decided to make a career out of his hobby. He sold Gilley Plumbing and devoted himself to his calling full time.
Wendell Gilley’s “Bird Shop” became a popular destination for Mount Desert Island visitors. Carvers sought his advice, while friends and admirers came to see Addie Gilley’s outstanding collection of her husband’s work.
Late in 1979, the Wendell Gilley Museum of Bird Carving was incorporated as a nonprofit organization by public-spirited individuals who sought to ensure the preservation of Wendell Gilley’s unique contribution to American heritage.
Where: 4 Herrick Road, Southwest Harbor
Season: May 2-Dec. 14
Hours: Through May, Friday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
June through October, Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Contact: 244-7555, www.wendellgilleymuseum.org