Monday, May 11, 2009


The central idea for the Osprey carving was created in response to the client’s comments while he was looking at the Stalled Raven. The suspension and the activity level of the carving intrigued him. I wanted to continue the idea of giving the carving a very similar look as well as keeping the piece unique and fresh as a creative force. It was not difficult to link the idea of the two carvings, they were very similar in their time frames and presentation. The time frame is important in both pieces because it is an extremely momentary event happening in a fragmented environment that will disappear in a split second.
The viewer of the piece is there to catch the moment that the bird is caught up in.
This allows a narrative in the carving that has many different options. In the raven the bird is caught in a gust of wind represented by the cluster of leaves that the bird is suspended in. The osprey is caught in the frantic fight of the fish that is struggling to stay out of harms way, this tenacious fighter skips and hops in a chaotic fashion all over the surface of the water. This action creates a pool of puddles and spray from it’s body that is linked to give the piece a unique lift and an airborne dimension to it’s base. This is enhanced by the action of the bird that is floating over the surface of the water with the airborne fish barely within reach. The wings are on the recovery beat and as a result are in an extremely awkward position. The bird floats over the event almost waiting for it to continue certain of it’s outcome. This enhances the narrative giving rise to speculation as to what will be, is the fish caught or not.
The osprey is hunting, it is involved in a struggle, the raven is playing, and it is not threatened in any way. The two birds are involved in what appears to be similar situations but in reality the contrast is as different as the worlds they are portrayed in. In many ways the osprey and the fish could switch places. The fish is a bird of the water and the osprey a fish of the air. Neither could survive for very long in each others environment. The raven is being supported or pushed along by the wind, a force of nature it lives in but has no control over. The osprey’s purpose for being there is to catch the fish. The fish is trying to stay alive and a force the osprey can harness if it catches it. If it misses the fish survives and the bird goes hungry, it will try again, the raven will catch another breeze but it will not go hungry if it does not.

Stalled Raven

November 11, 2006

I had not made a wood carving of a bird in quite a while, and when the commissions returned to birds I decided to make some serious changes. A client wanted an ebony raven and I revived a project idea from the mid nineties which I had developed for the same collector. This meant a return to the classical format that appealed to me, but I was determined to create something very different.
While I am working on a carving that does not have any radical changes in its basic design the ideas about making changes occur to me regularly. To take advantage of this, I began a second carving, which allowed me to develop these new ideas. I was facing the usual problems of technique and design, but I was prepared to let anything happen.
One carving developed in ebony and the other, The Stalled Raven, in a piece of red oak that I inherited from my father’s garage. About half way through the Stalled Raven I ran out of wood. It was not a surprise, but it did create a problem with colouration. Having a nicely finished carving in a single variety of wood was one thing but two-toning it was not in the plans. Obviously I could have gone out and bought more red oak but I never quite got around to it. I decided to continue with a piece of curly maple that was on hand. It took me a while to decide to proceed this way, and eventually the carving continued.
At about this time, it occurred to me that the carving could be painted. I haven’t used paint on any piece since the late sixties and early seventies. It was a huge commitment to make: if it did not work, there was no going back. However, it could be very successful and an exciting adventure that would lead to other changes. I ran painting experiments and decided go ahead. I painted it in sections and then glued it together. I used a couple of cans of garden-variety matte spray paint to apply about ten coats, and I did a final coat after the carving was assembled. I had a lot of technical and design problems. My early notes on this piece, for example, express disappointment in the way the wings were developing. In an active carving, the wings are crucial in helping to define activity and narrative. I was also concerned with the base.
By now, The Stalled Raven was hanging on a line over my workbench. It had no base and my plans for one were vague at best. I had recently used a series of airborne leaves to help hold a structure together, and I was playing with the idea of using this type of structure as a base. I added armatures in the partially-finished wings and body to allow for blowing leaves to be added in the future. This gave the piece a second life because the combination of the built-in changes to the original design and the creativity involved in the blowing leaves opened up a whole new opportunity
I adjusted the position of the body over the bench and found the piece was becoming very radical in its design. I roughed in the head to stabilize it and waited for the piece to show me how it would develop.
I am not much on making plans for these carvings. There are practical considerations that I always have to keep in mind. This is fairly straightforward for me, and mostly just time-consuming.
However, my pieces are first and foremost works of art. I have to face the practicalities of the work in progress and be open to solving problems as they are created. Making a plan would destroy the spontaneity involved in the carving. If there is another direction to turn toward, then having the ability to problem solve on the spot is a necessity.
The bird itself was challenging but nowhere near the complication of the blowing leaves. It took four or five attempts to get them right. The carving of the bird remained hanging from the ceiling as I wrapped the leaves around it. Once the leaves were set up it helped to stabilize the hanging piece. I decided the carving’s height by placing it over piece of glass and adjusting the distance between the carving and an imaginary base line, everything was set up from those datum points. As the leaves progressed, I wired them together into strings or long lines. That worked structurally, but the strings of leaves were obvious so I had to develop an aesthetic to cover this problem off. The armature that was installed in the raven itself had its short falls, and the carving went for months without being touched while I figured out what to do next. It all came together in a sort of cathartic event late in October 06 and it slid together after that. During this period the carving rolled over in my mind.
It became far less of a wooden bird carving and far more of an ethereal event. It is an event for the raven; it’s not a problem. Ravens are very intelligent birds and it could be that this bird is playing on the wind or the bird is simply caught in a gust of wind and will regain its composure. It could have been picked up off the ground or interrupted in its flight path the bird could also be playing in the wind.
It is flinching in surprise at the approach of the leaves that are rolling over its shoulder. The leaves wrapped around the bird are just blowing by, a measurement of the time frame for this happening. The power of the gust is apparent, picking up both bird and leaves, and depositing the leaves somewhere as the bird moves back onto its own way.
This became two carvings: the bird and the leaves. I know how to carve a bird, but using the leaves as a base was new. I am pleased that the blowing leaves do live up to the original idea, even surpass it. Both the base and the bird combine to give the effect that I was looking for. I started the whole piece as an experiment on many different levels and the innovations I devised allowed me to achieve a bold new look with my art. My bases will never be the same because I have developed new ideas and techniques. This is what I hope for as I continually try to push the envelope.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Wood Wonders

Wood Wonders
By Pattti Post Published in the spring 2006 edition of the Sideroads Magazine,
Georgetown Independent

Joe Coutts can take an old loom and turn it into a raven caught in a gust of autumn leaves, or create a table base that is art-under-glass from hardwood planks. Working quietly in his Tweedle Street studio in Glen Williams, Coutts has a reputation for being “the best in the world at what he does,” according to fellow artist Terry Black, painter and film maker, whose own major works sell for $25,000, worldwide.
“No one else does what (Coutts) does. He’s an artist of international stature,” says Black. “He’s not a wood carver. He’s a sculptor. His study of flight and motion with birds is totally unique. He has tremendous insight and perception; very strong ideas and creativity.”
Carvers agree. Nine-time world champion wildfowl carver, Pat Godin, says, "the art work of Joe Coutts is refreshingly unique in a world where original thought is a rarity. Joe is among the few artists working in three-dimensions who have chosen to pursue a direction that is clearly identified with them and you really have to respect him for that.”
The recognized uniqueness of Coutts’ art is due to skillful rendering of what he observes in nature and his use of exotic hardwoods rather than paint for colour.
He works with several kinds of wood, depending on colour perspective: black walnut, West African babinga, hard maple, yellow pau ameralla, black African gaboon, cherry, and others.
Wood sculpting is part engineering, part science, and all art for Coutts, who draws inspiration from his walks with the family dog around the Glen.
“One day on 10 Sideroad, I saw five sandhill cranes flying towards me, and heard their unmistakably loud trumpet-like call. It’s very unusual for them to come to this area. But I think they’d gotten lost during a storm. They were circling, then eventually found their direction.”
It’s Coutts’ close study of natural drama that supplies creative material for his art. And those epiphanic moments, captured in his work, are what attract his clients.
Tom Caldwell, Chairman of Caldwell Securities Ltd., Toronto, and Member of the Order of Canada, has two Coutts sculptures in his office. He says it’s the stories they tell, besides their beauty, that he values.
What sold Caldwell on The Sharp-shinned Hawk, was its portrayal of relentless persistence.
Coutts had witnessed this hawk – considered a low form of the species – fly smack into a tree trunk while pursuing a robin that had escaped through the branches. Even though the hawk was knocked out cold by the impact, he rallied and continued the hunt.
“I liked the story of that determination and focus,” said Caldwell. “But I was also very impressed with the execution: highly detailed and beautiful pieces, individually crafted in natural wood, to bring out the colour of the bird. They are really quite remarkable works of art.”
“The other piece we have – The Red-tailed Hawk and Crows - was purchased by my stepfather, Roy Pledger. Two crows are harassing a hawk, but the hawk has one of them by a tail feather, about to take a swipe at it, and you don’t know whether or not he’s going to get away. Will the hunted become the hunter?”
“The other crow is swooping away, and it’s a nanosecond dynamic of aerial combat. My stepfather was in the RAF and has been in the aircraft business his whole life. So it really spoke to his interest.”
It’s a quality-of-life investment for Caldwell, rather than simply a financial or even aesthetic one.
“It’s a good investment if I enjoy it, and if it speaks to me in a positive way. If I walk by that sharp-shinned hawk on a tough day, it’s a reminder of who I am and what I do. It’s uplifting. A form of therapy - of encouragement. It gives me positive reinforcement.” 2
The beauty of birds in flight, and the striking metaphors Coutts creates, began during hikes taken along B.C.’s north shore more than 25 years ago.
Coutts discovered a love for wood carving in the early 60s, when he decided to make, rather than buy, duck decoys. Then he became intriqued with mixing varieties of wood and grain to show colour and detail.
During the mid-90’s, he started creating furniture art as well.
Barbara Moore, a financial advisor with Wachovia in New York, says she and her husband, Jim, commissioned Coutts to create four glass-topped tables for their family room.
The artist proposed the concept of each table representing a season; with irises, water weeds and incoming birds for spring, tiger lilies for summer, birds leaving and fallen leaves for fall, and snow-frosted bullrushes and dark leaves for winter.
The Four Seasons Suite is designed to give the impression of walking along the bank of a stream. If the tables were circled, the carving would become the outside edge of a pond that is divided into quadrants.
And that is the impression the Moores have achieved by placing the tables around the circular couch in their family room, overlooking Greenwood Lake in New York.
Moore says Coutts’ art work is museum quality.
“They are the first thing people see when they walk into our house, and they are awestruck. The tables are spectacular.”
“His work is expensive,” says Black, “but for what it is - it’s still a bargain, and people who buy his art, appreciate that.”
Coutts takes pride in being able to create what he visualizes – something many artists strive for, but don’t always achieve 3
“I’m satisfied with the finished product,” he says.
But getting to that point is not easy. Notes and engineering drawings record the development of ideas, followed by construction of a maquette – a model of the intended work. Then the sculpting begins.
Throughout this process, alterations are made and solutions are found to problems that can only be discovered as the piece takes shape. Coutts is constantly working to ensure correct balance, rendering and expression.
Future plans include having some of his pieces cast in bronze – a process he is familiar with, having worked at Artcast in Georgetown. Casting will enable him to issue more than one piece at a time, as well as give the art work even greater longevity.
But the shimmer and sensual texture of wood will also continue to be in demand.
A current work in progress depicts a day lily, with sumptuous-looking yellow petals made of pau amarella, with darker shadings from orange babinga wood. The fine, black walnut frame below the flower belies the table’s base strength. Every detail is meticulously shaped, even the slender stamen of the flower. The 14-inch diameter of the lily is surrounded and supported by grass-like leaves also of black walnut.
“Every piece is planned according to a definite series of steps,” says Coutts. It takes approximately six weeks to complete a project - making a pattern, setting it up and building it.
In the corner of his shop, hangs the maquette of a large snowy owl in flight, commissioned by Imax Corporation founder, Robert Kerr, who has other bird sculptures by Coutts, and wanted something suited to hang in the exposed beams of his Muskoka home.
“I like the owl, because it’s graceful in flight, although it’s not something that’s seen very often.”
Kerr has a specially informed appreciation for Coutts’ mediium of wood. Now in retirement, he is building a wooden steam launch. 4
“Joe’s creativity and ability with wood is quite wonderful.”
The only sculpture Coutts’ has painted is the black raven currently in his studio. He decided against using African ebony because of its protected resource status.
This piece has personal meaning for Coutts. It’s made of red oak from his late mother’s loom. Missing pieces made the equipment unusable, and he wanted to create something his family would value.
During long hours of studio work, Coutts sometimes needs a voice of encouragement, even if it’s his own.
On his worktable, is a small, black marker sign, ‘Keep It Going’
He smiles and says, “I can stare at something and think about how it should be for a very long time. It’s important to take time to think ahead, but not so much that it gets in the way of progressing with the piece.”
As delicate as the bird feathers and base flowers look, their strength is underpinned by steel rods that hold everything securely in balance. The top feathers of a wing, for example, are sculpted first, and under them, the rod is installed, bent to fit the wing shape. Joe then carves a bottom piece, and attaches it underneath the wing, covering the pin.
But beyond all the necessary steps to make the piece work, aesthetically and practically, at some point, says the artist, he “has to let intuition take over.”
“When you see one of his bird sculptures, you almost think that if you touched it, you would feel real feathers,” says local resident, Gail LaBranche.
Joe Coutts’ website is at
He also displays his art at two annual shows:
Fine Furnishings Providence show in Rhode Island in the fall;
Philadelphia Furniture and Furnishings Show in the spring 5

Tuesday, March 24, 2009