Woodcarver honours nature in his lifelike woodwork

  • People
  • Saturday, 23 Feb 2019

Bill Majewski examining carvings of three black-capped chickadees that he made.

Bill Majewski sat in the garage workshop of his home in Duluth’s Smithville neighbourhood in Minnesota, the United States, and fired up a small rotary tool ­sounding so much like a dental drill that it produced involuntary cringes among guests.

But instead of fillings and caps, Majewski’s work is turning wood into copycats of nature. He calls himself a carver but he’s also a sculptor, a grinder, a sander, a burner and a painter. He turns pieces of butternut, basswood, ­cottonwood, tupelo and other woods into wildly realistic replicas.

After more than 35 years of wood carving, he’s advanced to almost all power tools now, and his work is more detailed, more life-like than ever before.

“I probably won’t touch a knife to this at all,” Majewski said, ­holding up a partially carved ­scarlet tanager between passes with the rotary tool, similar to a Dremel, that he was using to line feathers on the bird’s back. “It’s 50,000 rpms.”

Majewski showed visitors a chickadee he carved in the early 1980s, after he had taken his first ever carving class through the Morgan Park Community Schools programme.

“At the time it was the best ­chickadee I could do,” he said. “But now, I think the ones I’m doing are much better ... . The methods, the tools, have gotten much better.”

Handwork handed down

Majewski said his father could build anything. His mother was a seamstress and expert cake decorator.

“I think it’s in my genes,” Majewski said of working with his hands.

Majewski held up a chunk of old telephone pole he carved and burned into a generic mallard duck shape. It was unpainted, probably pine, but the wood grains seemed to be exploding off the surface with colour and detail.

Sometimes, as with this wood duck carving, Majewski leaves his work unpainted.

His chickadees look as if they could flitter away at any second. A cardinal stands out with the ­perfect crimson colouring, a sharp pointed cap and eyes that look like they are staring through you. Mostly it’s birds: hummingbirds and ­woodpeckers, a belted kingfisher, ducks of all shapes and sizes, a blue jay, shorebirds and tanagers and great horned owls and herons. He’s carved more than 100 loons.

“I really do like birds,” Majewski said. “Unless I’m doing a project for someone, something someone wanted, I usually carve what ­interests me. That’s nature ... a lot of birds.”

A realistic Majewski carving of a walleye.

But he also has carvings of humpback whales, bears, morel mushrooms, a moose, river otter-shaped letter openers, walleyes, brook trout – some beautifully ­finished and painted, some unpainted with gorgeous wood grain showing, and others that still need work.

“That one (the moose) I probably started 10 years ago. I keep saying, I need to get back to it,” Majewski, 78, said with a laugh.

There are boxes with unfinished pieces like the moose, but plenty of finished pieces too, and not just on his own fireplace mantle, cupboards and workshop shelves. Many are prominently displayed in dens, kitchens and cabins across the Northland.

The expert sculptor holding a carving of a bull moose that he made.

Name a local conservation group and Majewski’s work has probably helped raise money for them. He donates pieces that are often ­auctioned to help fund the non- profit groups’ work – the local McCabe Chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America, the St Louis River Alliance, The Twin Ports Walleye Association, the Lake Superior Steelhead Association, and more.

He traded a walleye carving to the walleye association in exchange for the group’s US$500 (RM2,037) donation to his beloved St Louis River Alliance. Then they wanted another one so they could use them for their travelling ­trophies, one for each angler on the winning team of their ­championship tournament.

It’s a labour of love, but it is labour, with dozens of hours invested in most pieces. A purple finch Majewski worked on during a recent class he took in Iowa (he attends carving classes nearly every year with famed Illinois carver Josh Guge) was not quite finished even after four days of constant attention.

Majewski’s pieces sell at ­fundraising auctions for upwards of US$200 (RM815). (That’s small potatoes compared to his mentor, Guge, who can fetch US$20,000/RM81,500 for his carvings, Majewski notes.) Outside those fundraisers, however, Majewski pieces are rarely for sale. He attends wood-carving shows to show off his work, noting he loves the praise from the public and fellow carvers. He has no pieces in galleries or shops, no website and makes no effort to market his work.

He models pieces at the annual October show of the local carvers group, the Knotty Carvers of the North, but most of his pieces have stickers on the bottom that read NFS: Not For Sale.

Still, over the years, word of his work had spread. And when pressed by a friend he’ll carve and sell a chickadee or other songbird, that’s several days of work, for about US$125 (RM510). Chickadees are about the most popular pieces he produces, Majewski said – “I can’t make them fast enough” –while loons, hummingbirds and cardinals come in close behind. “I could sell every one I made.”

“It comes out to about minimum wage, at best,” Majewski said. “That’s why it’s a hobby.”

Conservation ethic

Majewski has carried a ­conservation ethic and love for nature all his life. He grew up in a small community in northeastern Wisconsin, Armstrong Creek, on the edge of the Nicolet National Forest, and accompanied his dad on hunting and trapping trips. He continues to take wilderness canoe trips and likes to watch wildlife around his home.

“My dad was really an expert at everything outdoors, hunting and trapping,” Majewski said. “I grew up with a real appreciation for wildlife, for birds, for nature, the outdoors, thanks to him.”

Majewski went on to college and a career that peaked as city ­planner for Duluth. He retired from that job in 2001 but hasn’t stopped working for his community, staying active in the Morgan Park Community Club and other groups. Majewski spent 12 years serving on the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District Board, helping usher in the era of clean water for the lower St Louis River.

“Back when the St Louis River was being included on the list of Areas of Concern (polluted hotspots along the Great Lakes), I was about the only person in city hall who was interested in environmental issues. So I was assigned to serve on the committee,” Majewski said.

He’s now in his final year as chairman of the board of the St Louis River Alliance. The Alliance is the local, non-profit citizen-­driven group that helps promote and co-­ordinate clean-up and ­restoration efforts along the St Louis River ­estuary. Most of all, it advocates for the fish, wildlife, birds and people that call the lower river home.

“When people think of Bill Majewski, they think of the river. He’s been part of this (restoration effort) longer than just about anyone else,” said Kris Eilers, executive director of the Alliance. “Whenever we are in the midst of a project I tell people, you can work hard, but you can never work as hard as Bill Majewski. I don’t know how he has time to do everything he does and still carve like he does.”

Carving up good bids

When Majewski isn’t working for estuary restoration and improvement, or spending time with his wife, Sue, or combing his neighbourhood to pick up trash, he’s carving. Sometimes he combines efforts. Nearly every year he donates a carving to the Alliance to auction off as a fundraiser. A couple years ago the high bidder on a chickadee he carved and painted won with a US$240 (RM980) bid.

“It was a pretty good bidding war between three ladies. One dropped out at US$180 (RM735), I think the other one stopped at US$200 (RM815) ... But when it was over, I asked them if they would pay their last bid price if I carved them pieces ... And they both agreed.”

So those three chickadees brought in US$620 (RM2,530) for the Alliance.

“I wouldn’t pull out my wallet and donate that kind of money to any group. But if I can do it with this (the carvings), then I feel I’ve contributed something,” he said.

Majewski made a bunch of not-so-common tern carvings to be used as decoys as part of the ­multi-agency effort to get more nesting terns on interstate Island in the Duluth-Superior harbour, the only place they nest in the Lake Superior region.

The terns like the island, but so do thousands and thousands of ring-billed gulls. The gulls would eat the tern eggs and force adult terns off the little island if not for an elaborate system of fencing and habitat improvement.

Majewski’s decoys are a little, life-like part of that effort.

Helping nature

“The Minnesota DNR (Department of Natural Resources), back in 2015, was doing a project to improve the habitat out there, adding some sand and pebbles ... and they wanted to see if decoys would help make sure the terns came in and used the habitat they built” inside fencing, said Fred Strand, retired Wisconsin DNR wildlife biologist who has volunteered with the tern project for years.

A finished and painted carving of a scarlet tanager sits on a perch near a roughed-out carving of another tanager in Majewski's workshop.

“The tern decoys worked. We had terns nesting 8 inches (20cm) from the decoys ... They seemed to love them. Terns are territorial, but only for about 20cm around the nest. Otherwise they seem to enjoy the company.”

Meanwhile Majewski-carved piping plover decoys are being used along Wisconsin Point in Superior in an effort to attract the very rare, diminutive shorebird to nest in the Twin Ports. The little birds haven’t nested there in more than 30 years, and the only other plover nesting in the region is on Long Island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore near Ashland.

So far, the plover decoys haven’t been successful in the Twin Ports. While plovers have been spotted on beaches in Duluth and Superior in recent springs, they haven’t stayed long enough to mate and nest. People and dogs have scared them away before they had the chance.

But if plovers do resettle the Twin Ports, it just might be a Bill Majewski wood carving that helps seal the deal.

“That would be nice if we could get them back,” said Majewski, who has a piping plover window sticker on his truck. “I’m hoping I can see that happen.” – Tribune News Service/Duluth News Tribune/John Myers

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