Steve Valleau teaches bird carving to student Shir Kehila at the Wendell Gilley Museum. PHOTOS COURTESY OF STEVE VALLEAU

Bird carver marks 35 years at Wendell Gilley

Some years ago, a family from Massachusetts was vacationing on Mount Desert Island, and the two pre-teen girls took part in a workshop with bird carver Steve Valleau at the Wendell Gilley Museum in Southwest Harbor. 

When the girls were in college, the family decided to take what they thought might be their last vacation together, and the parents asked the girls where they wanted to go.  

A robin eyeing a slug is one of many hundreds of birds that Steve Valleau has carved in his 35 years at the Wendell Gilley Museum.

“They wanted to come here and carve with me,” Valleau said.

He and his craft seem to make a strong and lasting impression on people. 

Thirty-five years ago this month, he took a summer job at the Gilley, and he never left. As the museum’s carver in residence, he does demonstrations and leads classes and workshops.  

“I like teaching people,” he said when asked why he has stayed at the museum for so long. “And I’m interested in birds. That’s what got me into this in the first place. I also like working with wood; I like the physicality of it.” 

As for how his style of carving has evolved over the years, Valleau said, “I think I work more loosely than I did. The artform of bird carving got very realistic and detailed at one point, and some of the carvings looked like real birds.  

“There was a period in bird carving when they actually made every feather separately and put them on the bird. I didn’t go very far down that road. I tend to do less detailing on the birds now. I would rather start with a solid piece of wood and then remove what I need to.” 

Valleau mostly uses bass wood, in part because it is relatively soft and easy to carve. 

“It’s also very homogenous, so it doesn’t lend its own character,” he said. “It’s just plain, white wood.” 

Bird carver Steve Valleau describes this work as a “whimsical sandpiper.”

Valleau said he particularly likes carving songbirds and shorebirds. The largest birds he has carved were great blue herons. As for the smallest, he used to do miniature carvings of sandpipers that were barely more than an inch long. 

Most of the many hundreds of birds he has carved over the years have been offered for sale in the museum’s gift shop. 

Valleau leads two 10-week bird carving classes in the fall and winter and works with a local carving club, which meets every Friday in the winter. He also leads two-day carving classes throughout the summer. Every spring, he teaches carving during Arts Week at Mount Desert Elementary School. 

On any given day throughout the year, museum visitors enjoy stopping to watch him work and ask him questions. 

“Whenever I get the chance, I’ll ask if they want to try carving. Manual dexterity is the main thing they need. I think if most people stuck with it they would be fine.” 

Asked if he ever gets tired of demonstrating and teaching, Valleau said, “No, I don’t, because people are interesting. But it’s tricky now, doing it on Zoom, because it’s hard to show them what to do on a flat screen.” 

One might think that, working with a knife every day, there would have been more than a little loss of blood along the way. But Valleau said he has had very few mishaps and none very serious. 

“You figure out pretty quick how not to cut yourself,” he said. 

Valleau, a native of Orono, developed an interest in birds – watching them, drawing them and then carving them – at an early age. 

These days, in his free time, he enjoys gardening, hiking and, of course, watching birds. 

“There’re everywhere and they’re fascinating.” 


Dick Broom

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. [email protected]

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