From the initial rough carving, through to the texturizing and detailing of the piece, Donald Hellam has been capturing the spirit of birds through his wood carving replicas since 1983. The master woodcarver prides himself on being able to bring out the finer details of the birds ““ and this he does with incredible accuracy as seen in his almost life-like creations.
To create carvings, Hellam uses various types of wood including Manzanita Burl from the mountains of California, exotic woods such as Zebra, Black Limba and Soft Curly Maple, and in the past, even used oak pews to be discarded from a local church! Depending on the wood's texture and strength, Hellam will determine what course of carving he will take, using grinders, a variety of knives and airbrushing the birds to complete the beautiful replicas.
Continually building upon his knowledge and honing in on his skills to attain greater accuracy and detail in his carvings, Hellam can be found studying birds in their natural settings. “I've always been fascinated with them. There's something special about birds that's always stayed with me.”
When he isn't bird watching, you can find him consulting various publications and even renting birds (yes, you read that right!) from the Royal Ontario Museum to ensure his carvings are accurate.
“As a carver, I can borrow birds for two months to take measurements of size and analyze the shape of the feathers. I usually rent a few and take the average size before I make patterns of the side and top profiles,” he explains.
Hellam's niche has been carving smaller-sized versions of the real thing rather than large figurines. The smaller size allowed him the artistic freedom to carve finer details into his songbirds, owls, hawks, wildfowl and whimsical penguins. He's found the smaller size also has a practical purpose for many of his customers. “They're great for people who have carpal tunnel and arthritis. You rub the bird in your hand and it helps,” he says.
Over his 34-year wood-carving career, Hellam garnered countless awards which are proudly displayed in his Oakville studio. He's won a Canadian Woodcarving Championship title, Canadian National Wildfowl Carving Championship ribbons from Quinte Wood Carvers Association, as well as Grand Valley Woodcarvers and Hamilton Wood show awards.
Looking back, Hellam credits one of his high school teachers for encouraging him to take an after-school wood carving class. “The first thing I made was a quarter scale mallard duck and then I went on to make loons.” Hellam has ben carving ever since and still finds it to be a passion. Grateful for that first nudge into the craft, Hellam gave his first prize-winning carving to the high school teacher to show his appreciation. They have since remained friends, and upon his mentor's retirement, the bird was returned to Hellam. “He wanted it back where it belonged,” says a smiling Hellam.
Hellam is currently preparing for the Christmas in Ancaster Craft Show, to be held at Ancaster Fairgrounds from November 25 ““ 26. You can also find his pieces at Moose and Maple at 398 Queen St. in Blyth, Ontario, or visit him at his Oakville studio, which is located at 128 Kerr St. within Hellam's other business ““ Claude's Vacuum Shop. Hellam also accepts commissions and provides lessons for those wanting to learn the craft.