New Brunswick

Giving wings to wood: Retired public servant discovers talent with a blade

Dozens of eyes keep constant watch throughout Brian Dykeman's home.

Hundreds of birds have come to life out of logs shaped by Brian Dykeman

Brian Dykeman's hand-carved barred owl is one of hundreds of bird sculptures he's carved from wood since retiring. (Submitted: Brian Dykeman)

Dozens of eyes keep constant watch throughout Brian Dykeman's home in central New Brunswick. 

A barn owl perches, wide-eyed and alert, in the dining room. 

A blue heron strides through the entranceway. 

And a whisky jack alights on a branch by a lamp in the living room, an area where two dozen more birds sit, flit and take flight. 

Despite always being curious about woodcarving Brian Dykeman never unearthed his skills until after retirement. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

They are the wooden creations of Brian Dykeman, who carved each one from a block of wood, bringing them to life with stunning realism that has been recognized with several awards from across Canada. 

"All my life I figured I'd like to be able to carve," said Dykeman. "But anytime I picked up a knife it just felt like a lot of hard work." 

The ability to turn trees avian is a talent Dykeman only uncovered after his retirement. Encouragement and guidance from a friend began his transformation into the award-winning carver he's become. 

Hundreds of birds have come to life out of logs shaped by Brian Dykeman. 1:27

In the 16 years since he retired from his job as a provincial agriculturist, he's churned out a fair flock from his cozy workshop in Hanwell, southwest of Fredericton.

"Actually, the piece that I finished this morning, it's the 334th piece," said Dykeman, referring to a woodpecker feeding the open mouths of its offspring. "There's a few birds around." 

Although he has dabbled in a few different subjects for his carvings, Dykeman says he keeps coming back to birds.

This green heron is just one of several carvings Dykeman sculpted and painted since retirement. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

But what sets Dykeman apart is the marriage of his skills with the brush and blade. 

"For most woodcarvers, the painting is the real difficult part," he said. "Because it takes a long time to develop the painting skills as well. In any piece, it's often 50 per cent of the time, or more, depending on the species." 

An unfinished owl awaits more paint in Brian Dykeman's workshop (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Focus on teaching

Dykeman sells his sculptures, mostly at a pair of annual shows. And while he enters a carving competition from time to time, he prefers to focus on teaching. 

Thursday mornings sees his small workshop crowded with other retirees, hand sculpting their own mallards and kingfishers. 

A barn owl perches in the Dykeman's dining room. (Shane Fowler/CBC)
"It's about 20 percent talent and 80 percent patience to do this," said Arnie Wilkins, who has been learning to carve under Dykeman's tutelage. "I had no artistic ability and just started into it. You get captured in it."  

Wilkins, who used to work in the provincial Department of Finance, says he never had much of a chance to be creative and never imagined he's be capable of creating something beautiful from the basswood he carves. 

"Absolutely not, absolutely not," said Wilkins. 

Arnie Wilkins says he'd never been creative, or artistic, before trying woodcarving under Brian Dykeman's tutelage. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Wilkins credits his budding skills to Dykeman's teaching and the nature of the craft itself. 

"One thing about wood is that it's very forgiving," said Wilkins, holding a partially finished mallard duck sculpture.

"There's always lots of wood there and if this duck doesn't turn out there's always a chickadee in there." 

About the Author

Shane Fowler

Reporter

Shane Fowler has been a CBC journalist based in Fredericton since 2013.