Anatomy of a Folk Art Bird tree
What is a bird tree?
A bird tree is a branch of wood or other material held up by a base with birds attached to its branches. Those birds can be made of pottery, metal, paper mache or classically carved out of wood.
When first looking at a folk art bird tree you notice the whole tree together and not the individual parts to begin with. Does it remind you of a life-like tree and how birds gather? Is there something that draws you toward it; the colors of the birds, or how they are positioned? Can you tell who created it by its style?
I will be describing my experience with folk art bird trees and how I create them in this section of my blog along with pictures of my work.
The History of Bird Trees
Having a long history of whittling or carving, the Pennsylvania Germans used bird trees
to symbolize the entrance of spring with their amazing bright colors. As with a new spring,
the rebirth symbolism of a bird tree was utilized many times by gifting a creation for the birth
of a new child in the family. They were also given as gifts of affection or courtship.
With their robust symbolism, birds have been utilized in Fracturs and certificates of merits.
You cannot miss the wonderful colors and bold depictions in many historical documents.
They are also represented in quilts and carved furniture. The great carver
Schtockschnitzler Simmons created multiple bird trees combining varied colors that were
attached to bent branches which survive today as some of the best examples of
Pennsylvania German craftsmanship.
To ground a bird tree a base needs to be able to keep it from falling. Many have used sizable cuts of wood or logs or like historical artists have utilized finials from chairs and beds which may have been discarded. I have used these architectural wonders and have also found several pieces of wood set out for a garbage collector which may have ended up in a land fill. Those pieces are now renewed like the symbolism of new life in a bird tree. I have also collected other turnings from auctions and second hand stores. When creating the base, a branch is placed into the center of a base with enough weight to hold it and the birds from tipping over.
The branches or what the sculptures are connected is referred to as the tree. It can be created from a variety of twigs or branches or in this case, I have used a sassafras tree with enough limbs to make it pleasing. Why choose sassafras as the wood? Besides the historical significance of Simmons using this type of tree, the branches of sassafras can be bent when it is green and held in that position to stay bent when it dries. When he created his trees, Simmons even spliced extra limbs into the trunk to be able to add more birds.
As the birds on this tree are hand carved in wood, this is the more classical form of what I call the “bird tree”. They are similar to realistic birds but are not meant to be like real birds. They are colorful representations like the birds on fracturs or hand drawn certificates of merit from the 1800’s. They also show the styles of carvers like Simmons, the cross-hatching and eye brows of Schimmel and the turned heads of Distelfinks used on Gottshalls trees. Each bird is hand carved, sanded, painted in multiple colors, and stained for a personality all its own.
The Placement of birds
When I researched installing birds on my trees, I wanted to learn how other artists positioned their sculptures on their trees. Some artists face their birds all in one direction and others place their birds in a haphazard location. The colors and sizes of the birds can also dictate their location. In real life, birds randomly sit on trees but on a folk art bird tree, it’s up to the artist to decide where and how to place their birds on the structure. Many times smaller birds are placed at the top and fatter, larger ones at the bottom. For this example, I have randomly placed my birds on their perches and also have mixed the colors of the birds across the tree. Some may even be placed on the base as seen in some Simmons and Gottshall works.
Attaching the birds
I purchase annealed wire for the process of attaching birds to trees and stumps. I estimate the length of wire needed to go into the bird, through a branch and wrap around each branch twice. After threading through the branch, I wrap the wire through the inside of the underside of the bird then outside reversing each leg of the bird so that it won’t rock back and forth when attached. This is my way but each artist does it their own way. Gottshall usually double twisted his wire on each bird when attaching them while Simmons used one wire per leg.
The Finished product
When done, the bird tree becomes a wonderful sculpture that gives the viewer a glimpse into the past craftsmanship of what has gone on before. Hopefully more artists will learn the trade and continue the tradition of creating these marvelous trees.