words and photos by Ken Evans
Perched on the top floor of the Summit Artspace, Akronites can find the Song of Wood studio, a creative space where Tom Baldwin expands on a uniquely American art form and provides his audience with a chance to stop time and see the world as it truly is.
Tom, a lifelong artist and nature lover, has spent the last 22 years focused on “decoy making,” a form of American folk art originating from a cross between American Indian hunting techniques and European wood carving traditions. This art form has evolved from simple bird decoys used for hunting waterfowl into a style of sculpture that includes everything from hyperrealist representations to abstract works meant to convey a complex emotional message.
Tom himself describes his work a little more succinctly: “Basically, I carve birds out of wood.”
Tom’s passion for art and nature stems from his parents, who were both artists as well as nature enthusiasts. In addition to encouraging all their children to pursue art, Tom’s parents ensured that every family vacation focused on outings into the natural world. In this fertile environment, Tom took to birding, developing a passion for everything that flies.
Following in the footsteps of his father, Tom became a professional sign maker in Wadsworth. Back then, he explains, sign making was still a physical act, “when you still had to use a paintbrush.” Tom experimented with watercolors and political cartoons, then discovered decoy making in his forties after a vacation to Chincoteague Island in Virginia.
“Rather than going to the beach and hanging out, I started looking for the artists on the island. I hung out in their studios, just chit-chatting about the folklore and the history and their interests.”
Tom left the island with a few pieces of wood, some patterns and an old carving knife. Over the next nine months, working a little at a time, he carved his first bird, a kingfisher.
“I kind of had what you might call an artistic epiphany, or love at first sight,” Tom says. “I really got that strong sense that, as an artist, this is the medium I have been looking for.”
Tom pursued carving in his free time until he retired from his sign-making business during the Great Recession. He had just lost a significant sign commission and his wife suggested that maybe it was time to focus on carving full-time. “She really had to twist my arm,” he says with a smile.
Tom set out to achieve a bucket list of goals. He wanted to win a world carving championship (which he did in 2017); to get invited to the prestigious Birds in Art Exposition in Milwaukee (which he did in 2019); and to put out a book (which he did in 2018). He also wanted to help judge carving competitions and to teach carving to new artists, which he does at the Cuyahoga Valley Art Center.
Now, Tom jokes, there’s nothing left to do but repeat those goals.
Tom believes his carvings are a way to get close to birds that we may only ever get to see a glimpse of. “These carvings are what I would call a millisecond of a bird’s life,” Tom says. “You might see them at 50 or 60 feet away, but you really can’t see much more than that — if you get too close to them, they fly off.”
Tom not only tries to capture the likeness of a bird, but also an attitude. One of Tom’s pieces, “Urban Romance,” features two sparrows perched on a fence and positioned in a way to suggest playful flirting. Tom explains it’s a scene most Akronites have likely seen in passing, but he tries to give the observer a chance to get close and really consider what is happening.
Another piece that showcases the intersections of Tom’s realist style is “Wise Old Owl.” Barn owls appear in images from all over the world, including ancient Egypt. Tom speculated that the barn owl might be the basis of the idea of the wise old owl that runs through many cultures. The piece he created features a beautifully detailed life-size owl that stands upon a book entitled “The Book of Ancient Wisdom.”
Tom goes beyond making pretty sculptures, though. He also wants viewers to better understand the plight faced by many bird species and help motivate people to save them.
“When you look at a food chain or the whole natural scheme of things, from the smallest slug to the bug, to plant, to the bird, to the beast, it’s a pretty organized situation,” Tom says.
Right now, Tom would like people to understand the unprecedented steps being taken by the Trump administration to pull back federal protection on birds and wildlife — some programs which, Tom says, have been around since Teddy Roosevelt’s time.
Frustrated by many of these decisions, Tom created an impressionistic piece that showcases a life-size “rusted out” hawk. He explains that when companies exploit land, “You see man-made things lying about that are rusty and broken and falling apart. He doesn’t clean up after himself, he dirties the water, he dirties the land, he leaves junk and rusty crap laying everywhere — and he rakes in his money and runs.” Tom sees the hawk as a proud and independent creature representing nature itself, but here reduced to an empty statue by the consumption of man — “No eyes, no soul, nothing is left.” At the base of the hawk rests a single, real hawk feather, which Tom says represents the remnants of nature left once humans are done with it.
While a few of Tom’s pieces do strike a somber tone, the bulk of his work is hopeful and intended to connect people to the greater natural world. He even makes (significantly less detailed, but equally charming) ornaments based on Ohio bird species that he sells for only $10.
For Tom, decoy making is about drawing himself and others closer to the natural world and preserving what we may have missed.
“I love what I do,” he says. “I really enjoy it. If the competitions disappeared and judgings didn’t happen and all that, I would still do it just as much as I do now.”
Ken Evans finds himself leaping from life to life, putting things right that once went wrong and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home.