February 23, 2013 8:02:09 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Bruce Hufford is a bird watcher. Not the intrepid hiker type, with binoculars and bird book in hand, but an everyday observer of the remarkable winged creatures that share the planet. He notices their habits and idiosyncrasies, the tilt of a head, the ruffle of plumage. And then, this retired facts-and-figures chemical engineer returns to his Columbus workshop and brings them to life. With skills he began developing three decades ago, Hufford transforms featureless blocks of Tupelo gum into graceful Scissor-tail Flycatchers, flighty Hummingbirds, even a majestic life-sized Great Blue Heron.
He's carved "well over 100" songbirds and ducks -- some for wood carving competitions, some for client commissions, and 13 for a series of McGraw-Hill textbook covers featuring state birds.
Some may know this 82-year-old from his volunteer work in the community, where he's served as vice-chair of the Columbus-Lowndes Library Board of Trustees, as a longtime member of Friends of the Library, as an officer on the Columbus Arts Council board, or perhaps from more than two decades he volunteered with the Boy Scouts. He even made the Dr. Seuss tree in the library's children's area. But Hufford is not one to flaunt his artistic talents. And especially for those who knew him primarily as an engineer, the impressive wood carvings might come as a revelation.
"Most engineers tend to think in straight lines and square corners," he said, looking up from his workspace, leaning back in his chair. "One day I rounded those corners off, and it's been downhill ever since," he grinned.
That his birds seem so life-like is Hufford's ultimate aim. The songbirds especially exude expression and personality. They are depicted in natural behaviors -- on a tree branch, landing on a mailbox, or taking nectar from a flower.
"My goal is realism," the father of four emphasized. "If it doesn't look like a real bird, I don't want it. That's what you've got fireplaces for."
Hufford's workspace at home is dedicated to his woodworking and other endeavors, like crafting small flowers from metal.
"My workshop consists of two rooms: the dirty room and the dirtier room," he joked, examining the wooden head of a bird-in-progress. What began as a chunk of Tupelo gum tree is emerging as a recognizable duck. Its surface is covered with carefully penciled lines Hufford has applied to guide him in using his many tools -- rasps, files, knives, grinders and bits.
"The most difficult part to get right is the head," he explained. "If you get the head and face right, the rest falls into place."
Another duck nearby, a finely detailed American Merganser, is all but finished, except for painting. Its unique crest of head feathers and intricate body feathering required infinite patience and attention to detail.
"Each of those lines is put in with a hot, sharp knife," Hufford shared, examining his handiwork. "I can absolutely get lost in it."
He chuckled, recalling an incident early in his carving years, when he worked late into the night meticulously creating feather after feather.
"My wife walked in, and I said I guessed it was time I should go to bed," he began. "She answered, 'Well, no sense doing it now,' uncovering the windows and showing me it was light outside. I had sat and burned all night long."
Tools of his trade
Hufford's primary wood of choice is Tupelo gum, although he's used walnut, maple, cherry and other woods. The gum tree grows in lowland, swampy areas, its flared base resembling a cypress. Its tight grain allows him to create a more realistic bird, one whose head, tail feathers and wing tips may all turn in slightly different directions.
"And a big stump is enough to last two lifetimes," Hufford smiled.
He paints with acrylics, applying realistic colors with a sensitive gift for shades and blending. The finished products weren't always so striking. Every artist has a learning period.
" Did he tell you that the first things he carved were awful?" his wife, Diana, asked teasingly. "We laughed and laughed when he first started."
Nothing to laugh about now. Through the years, the carvings have garnered first place prizes in competition and been collected by dedicated fans.
That he finds fulfillment in working with wood is no surprise to Hufford, who went to work at the age of 13, during World War II, in a company that manufactured wooden toys.
"I've always made things," he said simply. "It's something I truly enjoy."
Editor's note: For more information about Bruce Hufford's carvings, contact him at 662-328-8935. A limited number of carvings, and some of his metal flowers, can be seen at the Columbus Arts Council's Rosenzweig Arts Center, 501 Main St.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.