About 12 years ago, chip carver SallyNye and husband David went to a carving show, where they spotted a
little carved bird. They picked it up and brought it home -- and
soon, people who stopped by their house were commenting on it, saying
they had seen one like it on their travels, to Budapest, or
Scandinavia, or a number of other locales.
The search for the history of the bird,
and re-creations of it, turned into a passion for Sally and David --
and the equivalent of a full-time job. "We're busier now than
when we were working, but it's meaningful," said David. "We
don't have children; this is our mission."
Both Nyes retired around 2000, and have
spent much of their time since then in their pursuit of the history
and legends surrounding the fan bird. What is a fan bird? It's a bird
carved from one piece of wood, with a "fan" carved -- or,
more precisely, rived (as the wood is split, not cut) -- into it.
"There's no glue; it's all just wet wood, turned and
interlocked," David said.
"There are three basic cuts per
carving," Sally added. Those cuts are "the interlock -- the
place where you put the feathers; the hinge -- where you pivot the
feathers; and the rive -- the individual feathers. All those
elaborate fan birds, are three basic cuts. Once the three cuts are
done, the rest is all ornamental, you can do whatever you want."
"You do need moisture in the wood
so you can rive and slice the feathers," David said. "You
can't do it when it's dry; the wood has to have, long, straight
fibers." To meet those goals, the Nyes use white cedar for their
wood. It grows only as an ornamental shrub near their home in
southern Michigan, so some Amish men they know keep an eye out for
the kind of wood they're looking for in a swamp area in the northern
part of the state. "For some reason, white cedar tends to grow
in a slow twist," David said, and they need straight pieces of
10" to 12" diameter, so they'll harvest the straight trees
in an area, then move on from there.
After the wood is harvested, they boil
the wood to remove the sap, then freeze it and place it in plastic
bags. "We ship it frozen, so it has moisture in it," David
The Nyes ship wood, as well as fan
carving tools and books, as part of their Fan Carvers World
business, and they also teach classes. "We share all the
information we have," Sally said. "There's no competitors
as far as we're concerned," David added.
And they have a lot of information,
compiled -- so far -- into two books, and incorporating European
museum research from countries including Poland, Slovakia, the Czech
Republic, Ukraine, Hungary, Romania, Finland (including Lapland),
Germany, Austria and more. They've dated the fan bird, also known as
the Holy Spirit bird, or bird of inspiration, back at least to the
1600s, and found evidence of it in areas ranging from Greece to
Lapland. "It was in judges' chambers, in people's homes, in
churches, in mountain huts...," Sally said. "If they didn't
have a bird, it was painted on the ceiling."
The traditional fan bird is a dove,
symbolizing the Holy Spirit, Sally said. An oft-cited legend, found
on the Fan Carver's World website, traces its origins to Russia. When
pulpits were introduced to Sweden in the 1600s, Sally said, a fan
bird dove would be hung over the minister's head, while a pelican
carved in the same style would hang over the christening font. Sweden
commemorated these fan carving birds in 1980s postage stamps.
The Nyes do make a variety of fan
carved birds, with the main species being the dove, but "the
pelican is on my to-do list," Sally said. "I have a
template." The pelican's symbolism relates to resurrection.
In many countries with an historic
tradition of the birds, they weren't allowed -- or at least weren't
allowed to be referred to as Holy Spirit birds -- during communist
rule, due to the religious symbolism. Still, some of the birds
remained, perhaps hung in a private altar in a closet that could be
closed quickly. When hung, the air flows through the fan birds'
feathers, simulating movement.
Fan birds were also disseminated
geographically via prisoners of war who moved through other
countries, carving the birds, teaching others to do so, and calling
the design the "bird of inspiration."
Much of this information comes from the
Nyes' travels, discussions -- both in person and online -- with
European museums, and ethnographic research, including translations
of old documents and research into U.S. immigrants' folk art. "Here
in Michigan, the lumberjacks did [fan carving], but they didn't know
the history," Sally said.
They've also taught the history of
fan carving at European woodworking schools, and classes in fan
carving at woodcarving shows. Sally, the main carver, teaches the
classes and finishes the birds from wood which David has prepared and
roughed out into a profile. "When we're teaching students how to
rive, it's a fun thing to do," she said.
When riving the feathers, the knife is
splitting the wood, rather than cutting it, and the Nyes have
developed two tools, in conjunction with Flexcut™, to make this easier: a 3" draw knife, and a
single-bevel riving knife (as opposed to a double-bevel roughing
knife) to allow more control and better fiber splitting when drawing
the knife down through the wood.
Much of their work, however, is devoted
to tracking down the stories and the symbolism of the fan bird. "You
could take any folk art and do this," extensively, Sally said,
but for the Nyes and the fan bird, "The whole story was just so
fascinating, we couldn't let it go."