“It’s amazing the requests that you get – each one of them becomes a whole experience by itself. Someone asks for a cotton plant or for a Coke bottle … I’ve got a fellow right now who has asked for a toilet bowl. I asked, ‘What do you want on the toilet bowl?’” said August Birk, the woodcarver extraordinaire from Cape Girardeau.
I’d heard about Birk and seen some of his carvings while visiting the City of Roses (Cape Girardeau) last year. Recently, he graciously agreed to talk to me about his hobby, and then he took a friend and me on a tour to see some of his carvings.
It would take several hours to visit every wood sculpture that Birk – now retired from the plumbing, heating and air conditioning business – has created in the Cape Girardeau/Sikeston area. In fact, he has conducted tours of his carvings. Suffice it to say, each carving makes a statement.
We traipsed across a lawn to see an eagle with a 10-foot wingspan. We stopped in the driveway of a local newspaperman’s house to see a larger-than-life “Jimmie Brown” newsboy, and crossed a busy street to see the Civil War Union officer in front of the historic Longview house.
At each stop, Birk would look over the wood and either comment that it was in good shape or “tsk tsk” that it needed a new finishing coat. Sometimes, he’d find a crack or two, and that would cause him to think that he’d be getting a call for repairs soon.
Birk writes in his biography, “All That I Am And More,” that his interest in woodcarving was sparked during a trip to Grosse Point, Michigan, in 1982, where Dutch Elm disease had taken its toll on several trees. He noticed that an enterprising woodcarver had used a chainsaw to create interesting forms in the wood there and took photos of the carvings.
Later, on a trip to Florida, Birk noticed more chainsaw carvings. Familiar with operating a chainsaw, and having recently cut down walnut trees, Birk decided to work with an 18-inch stump at a friend’s place and carved it into a large mushroom. He left the mushroom in the ground, and then hauled the wood away. When he returned to the site, he found a note on the mushroom that read, “Please leave the mushroom. I love it. Betty.”
Well, as mushrooms will do, they multiplied back at Birk’s place into several more woodcarvings. By 1984, he was “seeing” the possibility of an owl in an old stump, and then, the figure of a golfer – complete with cap, knickers and bag of golf clubs – in another elm stump. He began to look for stumps and would approach folks in the Cape Girardeau area and ask to carve something out of their leftover wood stumps.
Nowadays, folks call him because they can see a figure in a stump. He’s done horses and dogs, including a Golden Retriever. He commented, “ It was real interesting to see the response of the other dogs when I took it out there.”
He’s carved football players, Indians (the nearby Jackson High School mascot), angels, children, a 10-foot golfer at the country club, Ben Franklin, a cotton plant, St. Francis of Assisi, Santa Claus and a Coke bottle. He said, “A fellow came and asked me if I’d do a Coke bottle for him, which I thought was rather strange, but it turns out he’s the manager of the Coke plant out of Jackson.” He has a photo album chock full of his creations.
Some of his statues look so lifelike, they cause people to do a double take. For example, “This guy from Crab Orchard Lake over in Illinois called me, and he has built a beautiful waterfall behind the golf course, and he wanted me to do a likeness of his father … It’s close enough that a lot of people walking by that see the likeness of the old man in full color think it’s the old man standing over there!”
Birk sketches his plans on paper first, referring to photographs, and then transfers those sketches to pieces of cardboard as life-sized templates. “It gives me a good starting point and allows me to approach the woodcarving without worrying quite so much about ruining one.” He then analyzes the sketch to determine where to make the chainsaw cuts.
He credits his college training in art for his ability to sketch and carve.
Last year, Birk gave his first great grandchild a beautiful wooden rocking horse, and also a book, “How I became a Rocking Horse,” which he wrote. In the book, he illustrates and details the story of the wood that he used to build her horse. Some day, she’ll probably appreciate the book, but according to Birk, she’ll enjoy the rocking horse first.
Birk also draws detailed sketches of buildings, and these sketches line one wall of his workshop. He has turned one of the sketches, of his former home in Cape Girardeau, into a relief carving that hangs in his entryway.
His favorite sculptures, which stand in his gardens, remind him of his daughters when they were young and of his granddaughter. One is modeled after his granddaughter, Katy, and stands demurely with her hands behind her back. The other little girl is called Cora and she looks upward.
“I just enjoy the experience of doing it, and of the pleasure that I see in the people that receive it.”
He also enjoys demonstrating his craft, whether to art students at the nearby university or to younger students. “I always have to go out to the parking lot and cut something out for them … so they can see the chips fly!”
Visitors to Cape Girardeau should stop by the Convention & Visitors Center at 100 Broadway and ask for directions to see some of August Birk’s carvings.
First published August 19, 2004.