As several hundred art enthusiasts filed through the opening of the Phelps Art Center in November 2006, many people exclaimed, “Is that bird real?” or “It looks like it will fly off that branch.”
Bob Gittens, a self-taught artist, was a true naturalist and conservationist. His passion for the outdoors resonated through his woodcarvings and paintings. He watched and studied birds in their natural habitat to see how their anatomy and feather patterns changed with the environment around them. Every detail, from the finest carved feather to the last brush stroke, was meticulously considered and placed.
Bob learned to carve early in his life thanks to his grandfather. He was constantly sketching, coloring and making simple toys and animals from small pieces of wood. Two people who greatly influenced him to start carving seriously were Gene McMillian and Mike Wavercak, both good friends of Bob’s. Mike was also a carver, and Gene was a collector of art. They saw the raw talent that Bob had and knew that he could become a very fine and well-known woodcarving artist.
Eventually, Bob reached competition level artistry. He participated in and won many awards in several regional, state and national wildlife woodcarving shows. He won awards at the Ward Foundation National competition in Ocean City, Maryland, where only the best of the best compete. Bob also displayed and sold his carvings for over 35 years at the Duck Decoy and Wildlife show held annually in Clayton. Many collectors from all over the world bought his pieces.
Early in his carving career, Bob concentrated on songbirds and waterfowl. Later, as his talent matured, he enjoyed carving hawks and owls. He was especially interested in them because of their size and beauty.
As Bob got older, he shared his knowledge and love of carving with others, teaching weekly classes at his workshop and through adult community education programs. He mentored and inspired several people over the years in their craftsmanship and artistry.
As carving became more difficult due to several injuries, his passion switched to painting. Again, his love of the outdoors is apparent in his paintings of animals and Native American culture. Bob painted right up until he lost his battle with cancer in 2004. For those who knew and loved Bob, looking at a piece of his work is like looking at his face. For those who didn’t know him but are enjoying his work today, it is like looking at his spirit.
Some of Bob’s work will continue to be on display at the Phelps Art Center through April 1. His son, Bill, currently has work on display there as well.
by Beth Lahr