TREMONT — According to the judges at the Eastern Maine Sportsmen’s Show, John Fernandez has nice legs. They mean the legs of the great blue heron he carved, which won him first place as well as the people’s choice award at the competition in mid-March.
“I would rather get people’s choice, knowing that I’ve captured the eye of the public, more so than the judges,” Fernandez told the Islander.
That’s because the judges look for perfection, he said, while “everything has a little bit of flaw in it. So, I don’t strive for 100 percent perfection. It would drive me crazy. You do it to please yourself.”
Fernandez had planned to put the winning blue heron up for sale, but his nephew said he’d swap a fully restored antique ‘67 Chevy pickup truck for the prize-winning carving.
The project started as a challenge. Fernandez was looking at pictures of birds and came across a great blue heron. He decided to give it a try, “to see if I could actually pull it off and do it.”
It took him a year to complete, mostly in one or two hour installments after work at the John Williams boatyard or on the weekends.
Fernandez began by shaping the body from a 6-year-old piece of basswood. He then built the legs by combining a template he bought from a wood carving supply store and his own vision of what he wanted them to look like.
The heron’s highly specialized chest feathers presented another problem. If he were to make them out of wood, they’d break easily, he said. At one point, he considered using the bristles of a broom, but Fernandez ended up using wicker, based on his brother-in-law’s suggestion. He drilled holes in the main body, painted dozens of pieces of wicker and glued each one individually.
Fernandez has been working with wood since 1974. He said he’s always enjoyed creating something with his hands but started bird carving about eight years ago after his wife, Linda, encouraged him to attend an evening workshop. Since then, he’s joined his friend’s carving club, which meets in Brewer.
“You take a block of wood, and you can make it look like it’s real. It’s very gratifying.”
Fernandez grinds the wood at a shop out in his garage while playing old rock and roll and country music. Sometimes he’ll get so involved his wife will call him on the phone to remind it’s past lunch or supper.
Inside the house, Fernandez hand-carves and paints his creations on top of a small, dust-collecting desk. He uses a burner to create the pronounced top feathers of a bird, and a stone for the softer, fluffy chest feathers. Painting is usually the next step, but Fernandez said it can be tricky because multiple coats of acrylic paint can erase the fine lines of the carvings.
For ideas, Fernandez will browse the internet or a bird carving magazine. He and Linda also watch the birds on their porch. He’ll sometimes point to one and say, “I think I want to do one of those.”
So far, his collection includes a bald eagle, a red-headed woodpecker, a loon, a chickadee, a hummingbird, a prairie falcon, a crow and a pileated woodpecker. For the past two years, he’s been working on a great horned owl.
“What you want to do is get the carving to draw attention. If the eyes are looking at you, then you’ve done the right thing.”
Fernandez said he may turn to carving full-time after he retires, but he is hesitant about letting orders drive his workflow.
“I don’t want to deal with the pressure,” he said. “Everybody that carves is carving, I hope, for their own enjoyment.”