Wooden Wonders: Carving birds becomes passion for Danny Rodgers

By Catherine Godbey | Living 50 Plus

In 1980, wooden bird sculptures at Calhoun Community College’s Wildfowl Festival captivated the imagination of a then 20-year-old Danny Rodgers.

“They were amazing. I thought one done by Dirk Sibrans (of Decatur) was a stuffed bird. I came home and that’s all I could talk about,” Rodgers said.

That Christmas, Rodgers’ older sister, Melea, gifted him a book on carving wood.

“That’s how I learned. I did two or three, but never got a chance to show them because they quit having the festival,” Rodgers said.

Thirty years would pass before Rodgers, a retired real estate broker, would return to wood carving.

Rodgers credits the establishment of the Carnegie Visual Arts Center in 2003, the opening of the Alabama Center for the Arts in downtown Decatur in 2012, the creation of River Clay Fine Arts Festival in 2015 and the forming of the Festival of the Cranes at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in 2013 for re-igniting his interest.

“I thank Decatur for what they started doing downtown and how they celebrate the arts. I never would’ve thought when I was in high school that Decatur would become what it has become and is still becoming. It’s something else,” the 62-year-old Rodgers said.

Born in 1961 in Florence, Rodgers moved to Decatur in 1962 with his parents and two sisters. Growing up, Rodgers would draw while listening to his mother play the piano.

“My mother has art in her genes. I think music and art go hand in hand. She would always play the piano at home and still does,” Rodgers said.

After graduating from Austin High School, Rodgers attended the University of Alabama in hopes of walking on the football team. He was a member of the team for 2½ years before being diagnosed with diabetes.

While at Alabama, he took one art class.

“I would have loved to study art, but my father wanted me to get into business administration, so that is what I did,” Rodgers said. “After I did those few bird sculptures in the early 1980s, I didn’t do anything with art for decades.”

The establishment of River Clay, the Carnegie and the Alabama Center for the Arts rekindled Rodgers’ interest in wood carving.

“Seeing the works of other artists and knowing I could possibly get the chance to show my work to the public through the arts center and the Carnegie got me very excited,” Rodgers said.

He transformed a 10-by-20-foot outdoor storage room at his Southeast Decatur home into a workshop and started collecting books and tools, including bandsaws, drill pieces, razor blades, carving knives and a foredom tool.

“I’ve had the foredom since I first started carving. You have to have it if you are going to carve birds,” Rodgers said.

One of the first carvings Rodgers completed featured a snow goose made of pine.

“It was so hard. I got the boards of pine from Home Depot and glued them together to come out with a big block and carved away from that,” Rodgers said. “I tried balsa wood, but it gets real fussy when you try to carve it with a power tool. Someone eventually told me about tupelo wood. It’s like carving butter. There is hardly any grain and it is so soft. It’s all I use now.”

Rodgers used tupelo wood he ordered online to carve a whooping crane, which won best in show at the 2023 Embracing Arts show at the Carnegie Visual Arts Center. The sculpture, which measures 27 inches long and features a whooping crane standing on one leg, took Rodgers a year to complete.

The award surprised Rodgers, who previously placed third at the show in 2018 for a sculpture of a “Greater Yellowlegs” and received honorable mention in 2019 for an “Alabama Yellow Hammer” carving.

“I was shocked,” Rodgers said. “I couldn’t go to the awards ceremony at the Carnegie, so I had no idea about the award until I logged onto Facebook at 5 p.m. and saw a congratulatory note from Noel King. I didn’t believe it. I called my mother and she was almost in tears. Even though it’s just a local art show, I’m very proud. It means a lot to me.”

The 2023 Embracing Arts show included 60 works of art from professional and amateur artists.

Rodgers opted to carve the whooping crane and a sandhill crane because of the annual Festival of the Carnes held at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge.

“I love the refuge. I go two times a week to look at the birds,” said Rodgers who used to duck hunt and fish at the refuge. “That place is something else. That place is heaven on Earth and the people that don’t go and visit that place are just missing out. Whenever I have artist’s block, I take my Labrador Boone and go to the refuge. When you start seeing all that wildlife, it provides motivation.”

Rodgers is currently carving a life-size great blue heron.

“I love birds. Until I get proficient with them, I’m not going to try to do other animals. Eventually, though, I would like to do a red fox because we have a lot of them where I live,” Rodgers said.

When starting a sculpture, Rodgers turns to books and the internet to find images of a bird.

“One day there was a yellowhammer in my back yard. I decided to carve one since it is our state bird. I probably looked at hundreds of photos before I decided on what pose to use,” Rodgers said.

Once he decides on the profile, he sketches out the image on a piece of paper with 1-inch squares and creates a side view and overhead views. After placing the side and overhead views on a block of wood so the eyes, tail and beak line up, Rodgers takes a bandsaw and carves the outline of the sculpture.

“After that you have a rough image of the bird. Then I start carving with knives and rounding the edges. Once you start carving detail, it is up to what you want it to look like in your mind,” Rodgers said.

For inspiration, Rodgers also turns to Floyd Scholtz’s Facebook page.

“He is the best in the world when it comes to carving birds,” Rodgers said. “I go to his page for motivation.”

Along with carving wood, Rodgers occasionally paints.

“I gave one small painting of a duck stamp to a friend when I was younger. After that, I didn’t paint until recently. I’m still learning. I’ve shown a couple of paintings at the Carnegie and the art center, but I’d rather do wooden birds. The only problem with the carvings is you can’t have prints made out of those. You have one and that is it,” Rodgers said.

Every day, Rodgers, who oversees the Charleston Place office building, which his father established, on Fourteenth Street Southeast, finds time to create art — whether painting at his office or carving wood at home.

“I love art. That’s what I’d rather do than anything. And I’m too crippled to do anything else. I’m 62, have had two back surgeries and two shoulder surgeries, thanks to football, and triple bypass, thanks to diabetes,” Rodgers said. “Art is what keeps me sane. It is what I love doing. It’s what keeps me going.”