Sculptor of Wildlife
By Jon Farrar
It is likely that most of us are what we will always be at an early age - our personalities, our interests, our aptitudes. Those traits can lead to a lifework, find expression in other ways, or sadly remain unfulfilled. Cliff Hollestelle's boyhood interest in wildlife and knack for carving birds from bars of Ivory soap matured to make him a nationally recognized wildlife sculptor.
His artistic evolution took him from carving simple decoys in the 1960s to creating animated, meticulously detailed sculptures - a soaring peregrine falcon, a massive bronze bald eagle, pair of loons with young. Hollestelle's artistic evolution paralleled that of the art form. He grew up in North Omaha, but during the late-1940s and early 1950s, Hollestelle often spent weekends and Christmas vacations on his uncle's farm near Cedar Bluffs. It was the job of Hollestelle and his cousins to gather the ears of corn missed by his uncle's two-row picker into five-gallon buckets, making piles in the field to be loaded onto a wagon. Those days not only earned pocket money but also exposed him to the spectacle of waterfowl coming and going from the Saunders County refuge on the nearby Platte River.
"You'd have to kick the ears loose that were frozen to the ground," Hollestelle recalled, "but what I remember best are the ducks, mostly mallards, coming right over the bluff. We'd watch them during migration, and some stayed most winters. There would be skeins and skeins of ducks going out to feed in the fields each morning and evening. I was just fascinated."
In grade school Hollestelle did pencil drawings of wildlife and repainted his father's old wooden decoys, lathe-turned birds made by the Animal Trap Company. His interests in wildlife and art were merging, but would not find a venue for many years.
Hollestelle's interest in art blossomed at Omaha North High School, but was crowded out the last two years by an interest in sports. At the University of Nebraska-Omaha he changed majors several times, graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. The academic emphasis in art during the 1960s was mostly abstract and impressionistic. He was especially attracted to three-dimensional art - pottery and welding classes. While at UNO, Hollestelle and classmate Gary Zaruba (later to become professor of art at the University of Nebraska-Kearney) hand-carved flying pheasants in walnut, selling them for $15. Wildlife art always seemed to be on the fringe of Hollestelle's life.
Soon after college Hollestelle moved to Lincoln to become a media specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. At the university he completed work on a master's degree in education and became an administrative assistant to the director of the Barkley Memorial Center, a center for speech pathology, audiology and special education training programs. He held that position until he retired in 1996 and devoted himself full time to sculpture.Serendipity
Fashioning decoys by hand was mostly a lost art during Hollestelle's youth, especially in Nebraska. There were no mentors, no instruction books. Then, in about 1967, serendipity landed in Hollestelle's lap.
"For some reason I went to a garage sale," Hollestelle recalled. "It happened the seller was Bob Wohlers. Even at that time he probably had one of the best, most complete collections of antique decoys in the region. He was selling off some birds. He had one that fascinated me, and it was within my price range - two dollars. It was a mallard drake, and if you stood it on end and looked at it, you could almost visualize that it was made from a post cut in half. I still have that bird today."
Wohlers sensed Hollestelle's interest in decoys and asked if he wanted to join a decoy club. Actually, the club did not yet exist, but Wohlers and Lincoln sign-painter Ralph Stutheit were trying to start one. There was a swelling interest in American folk art during the 1960s, and wooden decoys could still be found in attics and farmyard sheds. Paralleling that interest, especially on the East Coast, was a revival in making decorative decoys bound not for river and marsh but for mantle and bookshelf. Decoy shows and competitions were popping up across the country.
In 1970, about 20 Lincoln decoy carvers and collectors, including Hollestelle, Wohlers, Stutheit and University of Nebraska-Lincoln ornithologist Paul Johnsgard, organized the Central Flyway Decoy Carvers and Collectors Club. The group began meeting at least once a month, usually at Wohlers's house or Stutheit's sign shop.
"We would get together, put a few bucks in the pot to buy a couple six-packs of beer and some potato chips, take some card-table chairs, gather in a circle and talk about birds, decoys and hunting trips," Hollestelle recalled. "Sometimes someone would bring antique decoys. You could buy about any decoy you wanted for $5 or $10. And sometimes we'd bring decoys we were working on to talk about, get advice on how to do something. Someone might look at your bird and say 'I would probably cut the head off and redo it,' or 'your bill is too long, your head is getting too cheeky.'"
During the late-1960s and early 1970s, decorative decoys were, by today's standards, rather primitive creations. In the early years, most decorative decoys were flat-bottomed, with traditional, resting-on-the-water postures, what carvers today refer to as "service decoys." Unlike most wooden decoys of old, though, they had more elaborate painting. Most still had smooth bodies, but some had wing and tail details carved in relief. Even in the early 1970s, carvers were pushing the limit of their equipment, materials and skills.Changing Materials and Tools
During the late-1960s and early 1970s, most Nebraska carvers worked in sugar pine, a tree found in western mountain states. During the 1970s, many switched to jelutong, wood from a tree native to southeastern Asia that has low density, straight grain and fine texture. Jelutong was easier to work than sugar pine, both with a carving knife and wood burner. The principal drawbacks of jelutong were that it was excessively dusty to work, was laced with hollow ducts that needed to be filled and contained occasional pockets of a natural latex. By the late-1970s, and even yet today, most carvers in Nebraska and across the country were working in tupelo, wood from a tree found in swamplands in eastern and southeastern states. Tupelo has a fine, uniform texture and is hard enough to allow the burning of intricate feather detail.
When Hollestelle started carving, decoy shaping was done pretty much the same way it had been in the early 1900s. Bodies and heads were first cut in profile with a handsaw or bandsaw. Shaping was done with drawknives, spokeshaves, chisels, gouges, wood rasps and rifflers, and used dental tools. Details were rendered with an X-Acto knife or fixed-blade carving knife.
During the early years, carvers made do with what tools, materials and references they could get. Hollestelle said Stutheit was often ahead of his time. He remembers hunting ducks with him on the Ceresco flats north of Lincoln. Whenever they shot a species for which they did not have bill reference, they would immerse the bird's bill in a Dixie cup filled with the molding material used by dentists to make dental impressions, allow the material to dry and set, and later make plaster models to have reliable references for carving bills.
Many advances in carving occurred independently across the country, but Hollestelle credits Stutheit with introducing burning feather details to carvers in the Lincoln club. Initially they used inexpensive, hobby-store wood-burners, "the kind we all used in grade school 150 years ago," Hollestelle joked. But there was no way to consistently regulate the amount of heat, hence the depth and width of the line burned. Today, carvers can buy burners with interchangeable tips and dial-in temperature controls. "I can remember someone saying to Stutheit," Hollestelle recalled, "when he started wood-burning feather detail, 'Why did you ever start doing that! Now we're going to spend two or three weeks wood-burning on each piece,' and that was how it played out." Today, much of the time Hollestelle spends on a bird is wood-burning feather detail.
There were other significant transitions in wildfowl carving during the 1970s. During that decade carvers began using rotary grinding tools to shape wooden birds. Dremel tools and the more powerful Foredom tools largely replaced hand cutting and shaping tools for most carvers. And carvers switched to acrylic paints. Acrylic paints became popular in the art world in the 1960s, but decoy painters were slow to adopt them. By the mid-1970s, though, the advantages of using acrylics - fast drying, greater brilliance, and thinned with water rather than turpentine - won over most carvers. Hollestelle made the transition in the late-1960s.
"I took all my oil paints over to my sister's house one night," he recalled. "She was doing artwork at the time. 'Here, take these paints,' I told her. 'Use them up, do whatever you want with them, but if I knock on your door at 2 a.m. begging for them, do not give me those paints back.' I went out and bought all new acrylic paints. Since then I've used acrylic paints."
As competition grew ever more keen, carvers lavished increasingly more time on each bird. One advantage of flat-bottomed service decoys was that they had no legs. A bird's feet and legs are intricate and difficult to replicate, and because the feet and legs support a full-body sculpture on its base, they need to be strong. Neither wood nor commercially molded lead feet and legs were strong enough, so using welding skills learned in college, Hollestelle began making his own from brass and copper, welding or silver-soldering pieces together, shaping toes with a small hammer and anvil. When two-part epoxy that remains somewhat pliable when dry became available, he began using it to fashion legs and feet around a metal armature.
When asked the standard question, how long does it take to do one of his birds, Hollestelle gives the standard answer: "It's impossible to say." The closest he can come to explaining the time required is that about 50 percent is shaping the bird, about 30 percent burning detail, and about 20 percent painting. "The painting might take some carvers longer," he said, "but I paint very fast."Rising Standards
If there was a period when Hollestelle advanced from "carver" to "sculptor" it was probably the mid-1980s. In 1982, Hollestelle's drake ruddy duck not only was chosen best of its category, but also best-of-show at the prestigious Ward World Championship Wildfowl Carving Competition in Ocean City, Maryland. For a wildfowl carver, winning the World Show, as it is better known, is the equivalent of being named the Most Valuable Player in the National Football League, or of a wildlife painter winning the annual federal waterfowl stamp competition.
Winning the World Show competition unleashed a flood of requests for Hollestelle's wooden birds, particularly for ruddy ducks. It was a turning point. While he continued doing flat-bottomed birds, some of his pieces became increasingly more complex and ambitious, often featuring several birds in miniature wildlife dioramas, such as his 1983, full-sized sculpture of a Canada goose with goslings peeking out from under its wing. Even single birds were carved in more complex postures - preening mallards, a drake pintail with leg tucked in breast feathers, a swimming ruddy duck with outstretched foot webs and teal in careening flight.
By the mid-1990s, Hollestelle was sculpting more songbirds, and to satisfy the demand for donations for wildlife conservation fundraisers, he began carving individual feathers of pheasants, turkeys, and waterfowl rather than complete birds. Even one pheasant feather, however, required up to 15 hours of his time. And there were other demands. He often judged three-dimensional wildlife art competitions across the country and, although less frequently than before, he continued to compete in juried shows throughout the United States and Canada. Hollestelle became, in short, a man who ran on very little sleep.
Hollestelle still makes time in the autumn to hunt waterfowl, mostly mallards and Canada geese. And, yes, he has shot over decoys he has made. In the early 1990s, Hollestelle and Bill Browne, another Nebraska carver, made and painted a small flock of green-winged teal. One day, as they emerged from an eastern Rainwater Basin marsh after an exceptionally good shoot on early migrating teal, they were greeted by the local game warden. He asked if he could take their photograph. Hollestelle and Brown proudly held up their bag of birds and posed. "No," the warden said, "I want photos of your decoys."Early Bronzes
Hollestelle produced his first bronze, two small Canada geese on a mudbar, in 1980, but not until the late-1990s did he fully embrace metal sculpture. It was a three-dimensional medium he had long been interested in, and it was a way he could meet some of the demand for his art. Typically, Hollestelle's bronze sculptures are issued in editions from 10 to 50. Producing bronze sculptures is a time-consuming process. Hollestelle typically begins both wood and bronze pieces as small renderings in modeling clay to work out the bird's posture. Once satisfied, he produces detailed, full-sized clay models for his bronzes. The clay model is then taken to a mold maker and foundry in Loveland, Colorado, and Hollestelle is involved in the various stages of the complex process, ensuring the final bronze is produced exactly as he envisioned it.
Because nearly all of Hollestelle's work is done on commission, he rarely has the luxury of deciding what species he will create. Oddly, birds by other carvers and old factory decoys far outnumber his own birds in his house and studio. To gather pieces for his recent exhibition in the Cooper Gallery at the State Museum's Morrill Hall, Hollestelle drove to several states to borrow about 100 of his sculptures, what he estimates to be about a fourth or fifth of the total number he has produced over the last 40 years.
Because of his reputation, Hollestelle's wildlife sculptures garner handsome prices. Twenty years ago, one of his flat-bottomed ducks sold for about $750. Today, depending on the piece, its posture and detail, it would sell for $2,800 to $3,200.
But it is not the money that drives Hollestelle - the income only supports his passion. He said if the hours required to produce a piece were measured, he probably works for minimum wage. "I will never grow weary of it," he said. "Each piece is so different. Back in the late-'60s and early '70s, we started doing this out of a genuine love of what we were doing. It wasn't necessarily to sell pieces of artwork. I still feel that way. Part of the fun is starting with nothing at all really, a piece of wood and paint in tubes, and ending up with that finished piece."