Award-winning bird carver and Wisconsin native Gary Eigenberger’s fascination with nature and love of sculpture fuel his passion for carving birds. As a child, Eigenberger began working in clay, adding feathers he retrieved from bird enclosures. “Feathers just intrigued me and attracted me so much, their shape, their color,” he said. Inspired by Bruce Burke’s Game Bird Carving, at the age of 14he whittled his first bird with a pocket knife, and his course was set.
Eagerly pursuing his love for carving birds, he began experimenting with different methods, carving ducks out of cedar and rubbing the smoothly sanded wooden surface with oil. Then, he started painting them with Herter’s decoy paints. He sought out other carvers, notably studying the work of another Wisconsin native, master carver Marc Schultz, whose painting technique impressed Eigenberger. “You could see every burn line in there,” he said, “and yet it looked so soft. The paint looked like it was coming up out of the wood. It was incredible. That was to me my inspiration, all these years, to try to do that, do work like that.”
In 1990, Schultz introduced Eigenberger to the Ward World Championship, sponsored by the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art in Salisbury, Maryland. With members in 50 states and eight countries, the Ward Museum has been celebrating wildfowl art for nearly 40 years with the largest bird carving competition in the world. Eigenberger entered the Ward World Championship competition with two life-size bird carvings the following year. In 1997, he carved a miniature white egret adding a few plumes. “That started me on plumes,” he said. The plumes on his wading birds have become a trademark of his work. Using a mix of hand and power tools, he carves the birds from tupelo and basswood. He fashions the plumes from various materials—tupelo, bamboo, or super-thin wire. Since his first competition in 1991, he has won over 50 Masters medallions, including 17 best of shows for his life-size and miniature bird carvings.
Eigenberger’s wildfowl carvings are in private and corporate collections and exhibited widely, including at the prestigious Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, Bush Art Center, Neville Public Museum, and Paine Art Center.