Jack Gilley is still deft with a blade at age 83. He’s no knife fighter, but wood carving — specifically lifelike loons, puffins and other coastal birds — runs in his blood and the Gilley family flock.
Gilley is carrying on an old Maine art form that gained recognition over the years thanks in part to the Southwest Harbor man’s late cousin and famed Maine bird carver for whom the Wendell Gilley Museum is named in the heart of Southwest Harbor.
Opened in 1981, the museum was created to celebrate the work of Gilley (1904-1983), who is regarded as a pioneer in the field of decorative bird carving. Gilley, who wrote “The Art of Bird Carving: A Guide to a Fascinating Hobby,” one of the earliest instructional books on the subject, created “ten thousand birds of pine and paint” between 1931 and 1983. More than 100 of his feathered creations belong to the Wendell Gilley Museum.
Besides Wendell Gilley’s work, the museum also has a collection of miniature waterfowl by the Cape Cod carver who inspired Gilley, A. Elmer Crowell. Educational and art programs and wood-carving classes are offered for children and adults like Jack.
“If you want to carve, you can’t just start out,” Jack said. “You’ve got to go to the museum and find out how to do it. Go to the museum and you’ll see what I mean.”
Like many Mainers, Wendell enjoyed hunting sea ducks and other game birds. He also was taken by their beauty. After seeing Crowell’s bird carvings, the then plumber began whittling mallards and other water fowl himself.
In preparation for duck hunting season, Wendell and Jack’s late father, Richard Gilley, made wood and cork decoys. Through his Dad, Jack also learned to make the lifelike lures designed to fool eiders and sea ducks.
Much later in life, after retiring from the U.S. Coast Guard, where he worked in lighthouse maintenance, Jack decided to try his hand at bird-carving and enrolled in classes at the local museum at his cousin Terry Stanley’s urging.
“Jack took to it like a duck to water,” said Nina Gormley, the museum’s executive director.
For 25 years, Jack took the museum’s 10-week bird carving class each winter. He credits carver-in-residence Steven Valleau for being a great teacher.
Now, Jack’s own fine bird carvings are garnering attention at his maternal family’s ancestral home, which also serves as a gallery, on Hadlock Lane in Southwest Harbor.
Bird chirping fills the trees and faux Canada geese line the gravel drive leading to the carver’s home/gallery. In the garage knives, paint, files, drills and driftwood cover a card table with nearly completed pine and spruce carvings of chickadees, loons and other birds.
Jack enjoys chatting with customers such as a Massachusetts couple who purchased one of his popular chickadees on a sunny summer morning. Each piece takes about three days to carve and paint. Most of the pieces sell from $125 to $150. If anyone questions their prices, the creator offers up hand tools instead.
With similar chisels, knives and other tools, Wendell created 10,000 birds over his lifetime, but he was never satisfied. At age 52, he quit his day job and devoted his time to blades and basswood until his death in 1983.
Wendell once told Gormley there are “so many things to learn about birds, in just one lifetime you couldn’t begin to grasp it.”
But the master craftsman’s passions live on through the museum and those like his cousin Jack whittling on after him.
Wendell Gilley Museum
4 Herrick Road, Southwest Harbor
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Contact: 244-7555, www.wendellgilleymuseum.org.