Underwriting provided by:
The Laura Moore Cunningham

Ted Smith, Wild-Fowl Carver
Nampa, Idaho

Ted Smith in a boat at Deer Flat Wildlife Refuge
Ted Smith in a boat at Deer Flat Wildlife Refuge

Ted - In the 40s my dad went into Sears and Roebuck and bought a dozen of their decoys. They were still marked J.C.Higgins, life-like decoys. After all those years there was a lot of touch up work on some pieces. Other pieces weathered real well and that's what has got me started. Then I decided maybe I could carve my own birds instead of what you buy at the store. My first efforts left a little bit to be desired and I ended up cutting it in half and making two birds out of it instead of making one bird. My wife thought they were beautiful. My mother thought they were perfect. Why did I need to do anything else?

Ted - I think the fact that I was brought up by a father who hunted and he hunted for food. It was a very important part of our life and my children were raised eating wild game - deer, elk, ducks, quail, whatever. They used to invite their friends over because you could eat wild animals like that so it was always a fun thing from that standpoint. I got started on the duck decoy and that was the first one I did and I thought if I could become really good at doing ducks, if I could just do ducks really good I'd be happy. Before long a bird is a bird, feathers are feathers so I got involved with the Paragon fund and the Birds of Prey, and just the education is fun to go through.

Ted - I was managing a paint store when I decided to try this full-time. My wife and I had quite a talk. I said I'd really like to do this for 12 months. We had a lot of money in the bank. We had over six thousand dollars in the bank. It wasn't like we were going to starve to death but she said okay but you get a job at the end of the 12 months and I promised on a stack of bibles that I would get a job at the end of that year if we needed it.

Well I started working 16 to 18 hours a day because I did not want to work for the other man any longer. I thought I could make this work. That's been well over 30 years ago. We never did have to find us a job. My wife worked for the Boise City Schools. That covered our health insurance and with two young children, that was very important and we created our own retirement benefits. I started buying IRA's at that time and within two or three years we started buying it for her also - so it turned out a pretty fun run for both of us.

Ted - The total project is white-faced gyrfalcon, and there are 3 components to the piece. There's the gyrfalcon itself, the rock that it will be sitting on and then the wolverine skull at the bottom part of the rock.

Ted - The wood I carve in is called Tupelo and I order it out of Louisiana. It's a swamp wood, but it's the only wood that I can get in large chunks. A lot of people carve in Bass wood. The way I texture I use a high speed rotary stone to do my texturing. Bass wood gets hairy and fuzzy on me. This wood burnishes down and gets shiny and it's very clean when it comes time to start adding paint to your project. It's just nicer results. It doesn't crack like some of the bass wood pieces I've seen and worked with in the past.

Ted - Usually in a competition area which I get involved in you want to try to catch the judge's eye. How do you keep it? Most judges look 15 seconds at a piece honestly and then they go to the next piece. So you've only got 10-15 seconds to grab their eye, get their mind working on your piece and the more interesting you can make it, the longer he's going to look at it.

Ted - Why did I name it Thor? - Because of Morley Nelson and the story that goes along with it. I don't know if you heard the story or not. Morley flew the white gyrfalcon. It was one of the last wild gyrfalcons taken into captivity. He had it in his cage there in Boise and somebody broke in and stole it and somebody spotted it and of course old falconers knew that Morley had lost a bird and the word was out and when somebody spotted it was in a tree and could see the spur on it and then called it in and Morley went up and picked it up and brought it back to Boise and had him about a month and a half, took it out and a golden eagle came down and that was the end of Thor right there.

It had a sad ending after all the work that had been done to save it. It was such an important bird in its own right.

Ted - All of my work is one of a kind. I tried to do bronze. I did two different bronze pieces and then I realized what the track record is there. You end up becoming a salesman there because you have 40 pieces that are exactly the same. You're going to spend a lot of time in sales, very little time in production. To me the fun part is sitting in the studio creating, trying to make it look better, nicer. Those are the things that excite me rather than the sale. Luckily I've had enough collectors throughout my years that realize what I'm doing that I didn't have to get into multiples.

Ted Smith's wood carving of a white-faced gyrfalcon
Smith's wood carving of a white-faced gyrfalcon

Ted - I finally accepted the fact that everybody is a critic. Everybody's got their own views of what it should look like and what it shouldn't look like. I have to please myself. I get involved in a lot of competitions. I'm back in Ocean City Maryland each year. The only person I've got to satisfy is myself. Sometimes I'm lucky to satisfy myself, other times I don't . That's just where it falls. I'm not concerned about that.

Ted - This year I've got a red necked grebe in the competition. One of the judges sent me a text in this day of technology and said what do you put those gills back together with, super glue? Immediately I got on the phone to try to find out what happened . He said aw, nothing happened. I was just playing with you. These are the people I've got to deal with.

It means I'm still in the running. That's why I still compete at this point in the game I'd like to think the whole world is not passing me by I'm still competing at the upper most upper most level of the art form.

Ted - I keep reference photos. I've got 8 drawers of photos that I've taken through the years and of course now with the new digital references I have files on birds digitally also so I've got reference work and in this day and age of the internet it's just a gold mine to me - reference material. I don't have to spend hours and hours gathering information. Next year we'll be doing a brief from Europe. The problem is, where do you get that reference material? Luckily I have a contact at the museum at Pittsburg and they currently have 20 of those birds in their collection and he does share those with me, shares with me what tools I need to work with and you have to have those people helping you too. I work with the Deer Flat Wildlife Refuge and NNU here in town, Boise State University, Idaho Fish and game- Any place I can get the real thing in my hands. My pictures aren't pretty pictures. They're technical stuff, what does the underside of the tail look like? What does the leg look like in different positions. How many different positions can the feet get into? Those are the tools I look for when I photograph.

Ted - I spend a lot of hours bird watching. I'm working with the volunteers at Deer Flat Wild Life Refuge. I'll be out about 4 times this summer counting and familiarizing myself with the biology side of the birds. It's one of the fun parts of what I'm doing. It's one of the fringe benefits of the bird carving. The more you understand about the birds, the better work you're going to end up doing.

Ted - The eyes are so important, just like talking with anybody. The thing we most notice is the face and the eyes of people. It's the same way with birds and bird carving. If you get the eyes and the face correct, the rest of the body changes position almost momentarily into thousands of different positions - not all of which are attractive. The positions are not always beautiful positions. I always try to look at it with the eye of the best view you can get.

Ted - No, I'm not patient. It's really bull-headedness. I'm going to make it work, it will fit. I can do this. It's something that has to be done. It isn't patience. You can check with my two children and they'll tell you - dad has no patience.

Ted - I've learned along the way that you've got to do A and B and C long before you get to X, Y, and Z and all those steps have got to be done in order before you're going to end up with something as beautiful as this when you're done.

Ted - I always thought I was an artist. My son explained to me I'm really a craftsman. I think he's right. I get such a reward being able to see, touch, smell, feel than I ever did working for the other man and working with a crew and bringing people up and you're back to ground zero again. At least with a wood carving when I get it to that point, it will always stay at that point.

Ted Smith's wood carving of a red-necked grebe
Smith's wood carving of a red-necked grebe

And really it's other people's view whether it's art or not. It's not mine to make that decision. That's the way I feel about it.

Ted - All my major carvings I do a photo album. And it starts with the inspiration starting out with just a block of wood all the way through to sealing the piece off and starting into the painting process and then through the painting process up through any exhibits the piece has appeared in, any awards the piece has won and I make a copy for myself and also to the client who is purchasing the piece.

Ted - I always wanted to do an eagle. That was always a thrill for me and finally a gentleman from Hawaii commissioned me to do a life size bald eagle and it was such a thrill to try and create a piece that was as magnificent as that bird is. Then just a couple of years after that a gentleman from Kennewick, Washington commissioned me to do a second bald eagle and I had the opportunity then to make the changes that I wanted to make in the second piece and the second piece is really a very superior piece - in my eyes to the first one.

Ted - I averaged about 20 birds a year when I was in full swing of things and there again, that depends on the size. It really does and most of those were life size pieces. But there's a difference between a small grebe or a golden eagle or a bald eagle. It's kind of hard to narrow it down to number of pieces.

Ted - Always wanted to do better - been as much as two years behind on commissions. Not now, but there were a number of years that we were in that situation. That was a comfortable place to be and at that time I would do 4 pieces for commissions and then two for myself. So I always had that carrot out there saying okay, you can do what you really want to do instead of what you have to do.

The two major shows were the Charlie Russell Art Auction up in Great Falls, Montana and the National Art show up in Ellensburg, Washington. The show in Ellensburg I was on the board of directors for about 16 years.

Ted - I'm up to 11 hundred and six carvings at this time and those are life size pieces. There are a whole bunch of little teeny ones out there that aren't counted. I think last year I did 10 or 12 pieces.

Ted - I've always taken a very minimal down payment. The reason is when I started that, I want all the money up front. Okay. Now you've got all this money, the money is spent and you've still spent all this time for nothing and I didn't like that feeling so I decided to take a very minimal down payment. This piece will take a payment when it is ready to paint which is two months without any money coming in so then the rest will be when it's finished so that pushes me to try and finish it. The small down payment commits me to the piece, commits the client to the piece. I've never had any problems this way. I have friends that run into all kinds of horror stories with commissions. I've been very fortunate that way. It has always been I own most of that piece until it's done. If the client is unhappy with it or wanted to back out of it, he very easily could without any problem.

Ted - I have mounts of most of the North American water fowl and quail and pheasant. If I haven't got mounts I've got what they call study skins which are really just a bag of feathers that show you what the coloration and the feather shape and that's what I use the mounting birds for too is feather shape and coloration. You can't use what the taxidermist ended up with. He can stretch things and move things around where they don't belong. You've almost got to go to real life and photography in order to determine the shapes of the birds.

Ted - Most of those pieces my wife says you will not sell this and she has gotten more particular the last few years. Normally if I do a show and sell one or two pieces she says oh, that was my favorite which made me feel I was stealing from her but it ended up paying out bills so it was a plus.

Smith working in his studio
Smith working in his studio

Ted - We own probably 30 pieces out of those 1100 carvings so we've got a representation of what we've done. When my children turned 16 I carved a miniature bird for them. It's hollowed out, there was a note stuck inside. I thought that was a unique thing. Well, I've had 8 grandchildren to have birds carved for. I've carved them ahead of time because I'm getting older. I may not be here for their 16th birthday and this is what they got from grandpa for their 16th birthday.

Ted - I really enjoy seeing people get pleasure out of seeing them and the detail work that I strive to put into it and people seeing my work. That's one of the rewards you get. Not everybody can afford it, not everybody wants to take it home, but everybody can appreciate it or not appreciate it and that's fun to see - what people react to and what areas people really enjoy looking at.

Ted - Thinking, start from a big block of wood and end up with something that looks like this. To me it's like magic. I still don't understand how I can do that. I do understand you've got to start with this and then do this before you'll ever come up with something like this. It's what goes on in the middle part. I keep referring back to the photos, trying to make it look better, smarter, and prettier.

Ted - The commitment is probably the biggest thing. You can't quit, you can't stop. And if you please yourself and normally there are other people who appreciate those same values that you appreciate.

Ted - There are days when I'm grinding. The first couple of days on this rock are pure torture for me but I've got to get rid of that big stuff before I get in there and start playing with that detailing and doing those things that really make it pop out and if you don't do that work and eat the sawdust, spend the time getting the rough shapes, the other parts will never happen.

Ted - Oh, the dust is a monster. When I first started carving I was carving in my basement. It was six foot wide, 9 feet long, 6 foot 2 tall so this is pretty cramped quarters and I did basically what we're doing in here so I had lots and lots of sawdust. I spent six years working in that space. I had a nice big garage but it didn't have air conditioning and it didn't have heat. So I procrastinated going out there. One day I had a friend that was in heating and air conditioning and we ended up with a shop about half the size of this. About six years later we moved over here. I built this from the ground up. I got the most amazing windows I wanted, the natural light I wanted, got the spaces I wanted. It made my work so much easier and more enjoyable.