Hand Carved and Painted Realistic Wooden Bird Sculpture
Tom Ahern grew up on the eastern fringe of Pennsylvania Dutch country, just north of Allentown, PA, where he attended a one room schoolhouse for the elementary grades. After high school, he tried business school for a short time and then joined the service and became a paratrooper. After discharge, he found joy in woodworking and started making furniture for both his own use and for sale. He also started a "real job" at Bethlehem Steel. After some encouragement from his parents, who loved vacationing on the eastern shore of Maryland, Tom started carving miniature decoys. For a few years, he gave these birds to family members as gifts and then one Christmas season, he needed some extra cash, so he took a few birds to work. He sold everything that he had available and took orders for more. This success planted a seed in his mind. He hoped that someday he would be able to support himself by carving full time.
Early on, he decided to make a pilgrimage to Chrisfield, Maryland to meet the well known carvers, Lem and Steve Ward for some expert advice. The photo on the left shows Tom listening to some of Steve's "down home" wisdom.
The Wards happily shared their knowledge with him and offered some of the most valuable advice that he ever learned. He asked if he could copy some of Lem and Steve's patterns to use for his own birds and was politely told that he could if he wanted to, but they recommended that he draw his own patterns. Steve said that "no man is perfect. If you copy someone elses work, you will be putting your own mistakes right on top of his - is that what you really want to do?" Those words really hit home and from that time on, Tom never copied anyone's work. It was difficult because he didn't have any formal art training, but he was able to work through the challenges that he faced.
Although Tom has never had any carving instruction, he has had the normal problems teaching himself how to paint his birds. After a few years, he realized that he needed help with his painting, so he started taking any local art courses that he could find. Since most of the classes were watercolor, he adapted his acrylics and started using watercolor methods. The fine texturing that is put into each of his birds provides an excellent surface for watercolor type blending. This works so well that he has been asked many times if he uses an air brush to get the fine blending of colors, This success didn't come overnight. It took over fifteen years until he felt comfortable with his painting techniques and he is still dedicated to improve the final result.
Tom started doing shows in 1970 and found that decorative decoys were a hard sell in his area. One of the phrases that he heard most was "I wouldn't put that in the water," meaning that the carvings were too detailed to be used for working decoys. They were right but didn't connect that they were not for actual decoy use, but were ornamental.He then started using lamp bases and shelves in his display to portray to his potential customers how his carvings were intended to be used and then they started to sell.
In 1973, Tom joined the Kutztown Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Festival in Kutztown, Pa. (this was the largest folk and craft show of it's time), and was with them until he left in 2014. They can be found on the web at www.kutztownfestival.com. Because of the large numbers of people that have been able to see his work, we was at one time, over two years behind with orders and had to stop taking them for a few years so that he could catch up.
Tom taught a woodcarving course at a local community college up until 1982 when he left his fifteen year job at Bethlehem Steel and went into carving full time. Because of longer road trips to attend more shows, His teaching duties were turned over to one of his talented students.
Tom is still doing shows from the northeast down into Florida. The largest carving show that he has been doing for the past few years is the Waterfowl Festival in Easton Maryland found at www.waterfowlfestival.org .
Over the past fifty years, Tom has developed valued friendships with his devoted customers and feels that it is a privilege to serve them.