Arts & Culture
Grainger McKoy: The Bird Artist
Feather by feather, sculptor Grainger McKoy captures the beauty of birds as few artists ever have
Photo: Brie Williams
Grainger McKoy is an artist. He also carves birds out of wood. These may or may not be two different things, and to Grainger McKoy it doesn’t seem to matter. It doesn’t take long in his presence to feel like you’re with someone who has fallen through a hole in the pocket of time and somehow landed to live with the rest of us sad, contemporary people, here in the twenty-first century. He really doesn’t belong. Silver haired, gray eyed, his face lined with life, he looks a little like he was carved out of wood himself, the way old pictures make us look like we have more substance than just flesh and bone. He’s a throwback in all the best ways, a reminder of a past that is only past because we’ve let it go. Pride, excellence, authenticity, compassion: embarrassing words in an age when some of our deepest feelings are communicated via abbreviated text messages. But he uses these words freely and doesn’t even blush. We were together for six hours before I learned he knew how to use a computer, and I was a little shocked that he sullied himself with the machine. So, yes: Grainger McKoy sculpts beautiful birds from pieces of wood. Somehow, though, that all seems beside the point.
I drove down to Stateburg, South Carolina, near Sumter, to meet him early one morning, and he was already in the outbuilding that is his studio, a place where wood dust falls over everything like an ocher-colored snow. Hung from a pole along one wall: dozens of old boots, loafers, and tennis shoes, which, for this man who likes to live so close to the earth, represent the days spent closest to it. Everywhere you look are mementos of an artist’s life, projects abandoned, some in progress, ideas that are waiting to become realities. A small freezer in a corner full of dead birds and snakes, which he takes out on occasion to gauge how far his imagination has roamed from the real thing. Because if there’s one thing Grainger McKoy is most interested in, it’s the real thing.
Photo: Brie Williams
A Life Well Lived
There’s an unspoken rule about life stories that you probably don’t know because no one talks about it—it’s unspoken, after all. The rule is that people are usually dead and gone for a long, long while before their lives are turned into mythic stories full of motifs, symbols, and high adventure; it just takes a long time to make that stuff up. For instance, they say George Washington was dead fifty years before they came up with that cherry tree story. Grainger McKoy breaks this rule. He’s in the pink of health, barely sixty years old, and already his life reads like a good novel. The difference between him and George Washington is that his stories are true.
The Love Story: He met his wife in third grade and they’ve been together ever since. Her name is Floride. She is everything the world loves about a Southern woman: sweet, quietly erudite, and beautiful. She happens to be a sharp businesswoman as well.
The Life Story: His parents left Wilmington, North Carolina, when he was a young boy and built a log cabin out in the woods, where they raised three boys close to the land. Not because they were forced to, but because they wanted to. It was 1954. “People couldn’t wait to get out of log cabins then,” McKoy says. “And here they were moving into one. You could say they were thinking outside of the box.” You could say that. His father had his boys running around collecting snakes so they could learn the difference between the poisonous and nonpoisonous varieties. Luckily, they were quick learners.
The Art Story: McKoy’s father died before he was a teenager. He and his two brothers were raised by their mother, and she was a muse to them all. When one of his brothers expressed an interest in animals, she got him a horse; now he’s a vet. The other brother liked to grow things, so he got a tractor; he’s now a successful farmer of tomatoes. And when Grainger told her he wanted to carve a piece of wood to make it look like a bird, she held him up by his belt loops and he sawed off a piece of their cabin. A piece of the house they lived in. From this wood he made his first bird. He still has that bird. It’s sitting on his mantel in the living room of his house.
Photo: Brie Williams
The House Story: Yes, even the house he lives in has a story behind it. Off the old Indian road that used to be the only one to connect Sumter and Camden going north, and all the way to Georgetown going south, this eighteenth-century home seems, like McKoy himself, to have somehow survived time’s steady erosion. Towering moss-laden oaks stand like old soldiers around the winding gravel drive, and behind the house are acres of open green fields carved out of the swampy woods. The governor of South Carolina lived here in the mid-1700s, along with his daughter, who happened to be the Civil War diarist Mary Boykin Chestnut. “Woe to those who began this war if they were not in bitter earnest,” she wrote from this house. The governor sold it to William Ellison, a former slave who bought his freedom, along with that of his wife and daughter. After buying the house, Ellison went on to own more slaves than anyone but the richest white planters, and is the subject of a book, Black Masters. So: Two people who have lived in this house already have books written by them or about them.
There’s definitely room for at least one more here.
Feather by Feather
This is what Grainger McKoy does: he takes a piece of wood—basswood—and methodically carves away the excess parts of it until he finds the bird inside, “eliminating everything that isn’t true,” as he puts it. And that’s not easy. The birds he carves don’t come out in one stiff piece; they’re carved feather by feather, each line etched with a burning tool. Then each feather is inserted into the body of the bird, which is carved from yet another piece of wood. Larger, complex works involving multiple birds are engineering masterpieces anchored by invisible steel bands hidden within the basswood wings. The craftsmanship, patience, and artistry his work entails are beyond anything this writer has ever seen, especially when you consider that the bird he creates is accurate to the feather. In other words, if McKoy could somehow breathe real life into the lifelike birds he carves, they would fly.
“I used to carve decoys to fool birds,” he says, breaking into a grin. “Now I carve birds to fool people.”
Photo: Brie Williams
There’s a long list of people who like to be fooled in just this way, so if you want one of McKoy’s birds, you’ll have to get in line. There’s a five-year wait. That’s how long it takes when one man does it all, from the first step (imagining the scene) to the last (crating and shipping the birds themselves). Nope, UPS won’t be delivering your bird: McKoy will. He has gone so far as to visit the home of a man who wanted one of his birds so he could build a wooden model, like a dollhouse, of the space where the bird would be displayed. After he comes up with an idea, he sketches the bird, or birds, in flight—all of his birds seem to be going somewhere—and shares the sketch with the client. The entire process of making one of his birds is a kind of partnership with the person who wants it, though make no mistake, McKoy is the senior partner: He doesn’t carve birds to order; he carves the bird his mind imagines, which means that whatever you end up with is going to be better than anything you could have thought up yourself. And more authentic. “I don’t do loons,” he says, another smile taking over his face, “because I don’t know loons. I carve what I know.”
Quail, for instance. He loves quail. In Grainger McKoy’s world, everything is a symbol for something else, everything a metaphor. A quail is a perfect example. It lives close to the ground, which is how McKoy feels a life should be lived, in touch with the real world. It’s an indicator species, which means that if there are lots of quail about, the land is healthy. And, of course, it’s a Southern bird. His most famous work is called Covey Rise, a tour de force of sudden flight caught with an artist’s most important tool, his emotional memory. Quail are a part of the culture McKoy has spent his entire life absorbed in. He hasn’t ventured far from his Stateburg, South Carolina, home—he studied architecture, then biology, at Clemson—and so the heritage he has inherited, what runs through his blood, does not have a loon in it. “I love to draw quail, carve quail, shoot quail, eat quail. Not necessarily in that order.”
He’s the first and only artist I’ve ever met who eats the source of his greatest work.
Photo: Brie Williams
A Dedicated Path
He a complicated man, this Grainger McKoy. He’s an artist who cocks his ear to hear his name spoken, the same as everybody else. But he’s also a Christian who believes that it’s not what you do but how you do it that counts. He spends a part of every day wondering, “What’s my trail?” What is it he’s leaving behind him, for his children, for the world? The fact that he works mostly in wood underscores the frailty of his shot at immortality. He’s also worked in bronze, brass, silver, gold, platinum, and stainless steel, using a process called vacuum casting to retain the fine detail of each feather. He has some very large installations erected around the country and is currently shaping the six-foot primary feathers of a massive wing of a pintail duck in wood that will be cast into a twenty-foot-tall stainless steel sculpture to be mounted outdoors. But wood is where his heart lies. And it’s difficult to be taken seriously as an artist when almost everybody who preceded you in the field carved what is known today as decorative decoys. Even to be known as a wildlife artist is a kind of diminishment, a second-tier, backhanded compliment. But the fact is, McKoy does in wood what Audubon did on paper: His work is that true to life. I wonder, though: If his mother hadn’t let him carve off a piece of the cabin they lived in when he was a boy, and had instead given him a piece of clay, would his path have been different? If as a sophomore in college he hadn’t met his mentor, Gilbert Maggioni, a Beaufort native who shared McKoy’s passion for wood, would he have found another way to express his visions of flight? Impossible questions to answer, and the truth is, McKoy doesn’t really care all that much about it anymore. He’s done so much in the field that chose him. His work sells for more money than he’s comfortable talking about. And two days after I see him, one of his clients is sending a private jet to pick up him and his wife in Sumter and speeding them up to Maine. “I don’t know what the carbon footprint of that thing is,” he says. “But I guess someone’s got to fly in it, and I guess it might as well be us.” It reminds him of something his mother said when he told her he was going to give over the first few years of his adult life to carving pieces of wood into birds. “It’s a wonderful adventure,” she said, sending him on his way into it. It’s what he told his kids when they came to him with their life plans, and what he wants me to tell mine. It’s what he’ll tell himself as he’s waiting on the tarmac for that silver bird, his ride.
Photo: Brie Williams
It’s a wonderful adventure.
And it is. But he wonders if he may have done everything he can with his carving. How many quail or bitterns is it seemly for a grown man to make, after all? At the end of the day he starts talking about the possibilities. A mythical bird, he decides, might be the way to go. Just make it up from scratch, every single feather. The idea makes his eyes smile. If anybody else were to talk like this, it would be no more than aimless chatter, but McKoy could do it. He could give it five wings with eyes on each of them if he wanted to, and by the time he was done you’d believe in it, or wish you could. You’d want one all your own.