Ever since his youth, Steven Fland has been enthralled with winged creatures that fly high above his head. Family trips to wild areas, parks and nature preserves gave him a deep appreciation for wildlife, as his photographer and artist parents taught him to look with his eyes. Now, his life in the Finger Lakes inspires him to capture the essence of the avians he loves. “The Finger Lakes area inspires me because of the wide variety of species to draw from as subject matter,” said Fland, who has created more than 150 life-sized bird sculptures over the years.
After receiving a degree in biology from SUNY Potsdam, Fland taught life science at the middle-school level for 36 years, but it wasn’t until he did ornithological graduate work at Cornell University that he realized his love of birds could be turned into art. In 1976, he and another teacher opened a wildlife art shop where Fland discovered his passion for bird sculpture.
“Having a desire to try my hand in the art form, I completed my first carving in 1978,” said Fland, who entered his first decoy-carving competition the following year. “In less than one year, I moved up and began competing in open/professional class, and in 1982, I won my first of five ‘Best-of-Show’ awards at the U.S. National Decoy Show.” Fland won first-, second- and third-place prizes at the first New York State Wildlife Art Competition, which a year later changed its rules, allowing each artist only one entry.
“My early pieces were highly-detailed floating sculptures that in competition are judged on the water,” said Fland. “Aside from having to be accurate to the species in anatomy, color and posture, they must float correctly in a natural, lifelike attitude.”
Although Fland still designs floating sculptures, he has branched out into a category he refers to as “interpretative,” which takes a “more stylized, loose impressionistic approach,” he said. He also designs “full size decorative” pieces in which the bird is displayed in a habitat.
Since Fland wants his representations of birds to be precise, as soon as he knows the next piece he will make, he begins studying relentlessly. His research includes studying the habitat appropriate to that bird, and sometimes, “the purchase of aviary specimens to study,” he said. He then draws and cuts a pattern from a block of wood, of which he generally uses tupelo, basswood or black walnut. Depending on the size of the piece, he employs anything from a chain saw to a dental bit to help him achieve the desired effect.
“After the piece is carved, it is then textured and ‘burned’ with an instrument that puts a knife-like cut in the wood using heat,” said Fland. “This preparation creates a lifelike reflective surface, with natural undulations of highlights and shadows, on the sculpture.”
Fland’s pieces range in size from a pair of red-tailed hawks, which he said is the tallest piece ever displayed at the World Championship of Wildfowl Carving, to a tiny ruby-throated hummingbird. He is currently working on a floor sculpture of a “hippopotamus emerging from the water with two Cattle Egrets looking for insects on its back,” he said.
Fland’s careful attention to detail is driven by his belief in the importance of composition. “I want to force the viewer’s eye to flow through the sculpture and still be of interest when seen from all directions,” he said. “When viewing my work, look at the bird with regard to its behavior and the overall design, while at the same time, remembering it is sculpted from wood.”
The majority of Fland’s work is commission-based, with the price determined by species size and complexity of the habitat, Fland said. His work takes anywhere from 150 to 1,500 hours to complete, which would be equivalent to one year of work, he said.
You can view Steven’s work at Skaneateles Artisans, 11 Fennel Street, Skaneateles (Skaneatelesartisans.com) or you can call 315-497-1919.
by Kimberly Price