Subtleties in the feather color of the now-extinct Carolina parakeet prompted artist Tom Duran Jr. to switch from using acrylic paint to employing the nuances of oils on his carving.
That was among one of the insights Duran shared with the audience during a special program June 12 at the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art, Millersburg. Another was that up to 80 to 90 percent of a piece of bass wood could be carved away to complete just the correct shape he wanted to create.
Duran explained his process during the Discovery Lecture Series event and was available to greet center visitors.
His work is currently on display at the center's Olewine Gallery through Aug. 24, in a retrospective exhibit called "Reflections: The Art of Tom Duran Jr." It not only includes his legendary carvings of extinct birds of North America on a rare loan from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, but also more than 30 of Duran's illustrations of fish, amphibians and reptiles on loan from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.
This is the first time the carvings have been exhibited outside the museum.
Duran said it was a privilege for him to attend. Looking at the exhibit - which spanned 40 years of his labor - he said it was "humbling."
"The staff here did an incredible job of putting all of this together," he said.
Duran, who now resides in Stahlstown, Westmoreland County, also had the privilege of knowing Ned Smith.
"He was just as great of a person as he was an artist," said Duran.
Duran gained what he called "a tremendous education" in natural history throughout his on-the-job experiences. For 12 years, through 1985, he served as staff illustrator with the PFBC. He had previously worked at CMNH as a taxidermist and artist from 1963 to 1972.
He showed slides of his creative process and offered information on the birds' extinction.
"How can you not pay attention to something that was so much a part of our history?" he asked.
Duran said he began his project by modeling his subject matter in clay. He was rarely able to carve one bird out of a single piece of wood due to the direction and look of the grain. Bass wood was the material used, because of its subtle graining. Oftentimes, other pieces of wood would be used for the tail and wings. Duran used an electric burning pen to place detail on the birds. The carvings were then given a coat of lacquer and gesso before he painted them.
Most of the carved pieces were painted with acrylics, but he used oil paint for the Carolina Parakeet. The color transitions of their feathers were so delicate that using quick-drying acrylics didn't give him the time to do what he needed to do for the desired look, he said. Other birds included in the exhibit are the Passenger Pigeon, Great Auk, Labrador Duck, Heath Hen, Bachman's Warbler, Dusky Seaside Sparrow and Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
He told the audience that designing the Great Auk was one of his most satisfying pieces. He hallowed out the center of the auk and glued the two halves back together. He also enjoyed making the landscaping for the bird, which included creating a challenging auk skull underneath the shoreline shelf.
The complete extinct birds collection took him about 13 years to complete and was finished in 2005.
Beth E. Sanders, the center's director of education, introduced Duran and noted that this was one of the center's most popular exhibits.
Duran acknowledged several colleagues from the PFBC who were in the audience, as well as his wife, Clydene, and center members and staff. He said Stephen V. Quigley, the center's executive director, had wooden fences built to help protect the collection. The wood, he noted, was obtained from center trustee John D. Laskowski.
Because Duran's carvings are so lifelike, they sometimes beckon visitors to try to touch the pieces to see if they are real, or are taxidermy specimens. The fencing keeps the collection well-protected, yet displayed in a manner that gives easy visual access to gallery fans.
Quigley also obtained some of Duran's original sketches, where he planned out his vision for what the final piece should resemble. Some of those sketches are on display in the gallery, beside the finished artwork. Quigley also has the PFBC posters which were made from Duran's originals hanging side-by-side.
One visitor, Jane Zimmerman, said she attended the program because she has an interest in nature and wildlife. She heard about Duran's appearance through her center membership.
"We were interested in looking at his amphibians, not even knowing about his wood carvings," said Zimmerman, who lives along the Susquehanna River in Halifax Township, Dauphin County. "The detail - that was what was so amazing here. It almost looks like it's the actual feathers. It was a pleasant surprise."
Zimmerman's family also knew Ned Smith. She said her father, Joe Shomper, owned Shomper's Sports Equipment Store along Route 147, and Smith used to come into her dad's business to purchase his outdoor supplies.
Anyone who missed Duran's presentation will have an opportunity to meet him again during the Ned Smith Center for Nature & Art's 21st annual Nature & Arts Festival on July 26.
Duran will offer gallery tours from 10 to 11 a.m. and 1:30 to 2 p.m.
The festival runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at MYO Park, Millersburg, and at the center, 176 Water Company Road, Millersburg.
Admission to the festival and gallery is free that day. A shuttle bus will be available.
For more information, visit www.nedsmithcenter.org or call 717-692-3699.