Hubbard Lake residents Ron and Sharron Smith usually make it a practice to watch the Kentucky Derby, but come next weekend they will be viewing the storied May 5th race with heightened interest.
Union Rags, considered the heavy favorite to win, is owned by Phyllis Mills Wyeth, wife of third generation painter Jamie Wyeth. The Smiths have long felt a connection to the famous Wyeth family ever since Ron was commissioned to do one of his bird carvings for Jamie Wyeth's father, the now deceased legendary American painter, Andrew Wyeth.
In over 40 years, Ron has carved more than 1,000 birds in a realistic style for collectors in 40 states. For many years now, he has worked solely on a commissioned basis with collectors waiting sometimes up to two or three years for a finished piece. A self-taught artist, he works out of his home studio set in 70 wooded acres on a tributary of the Thunder Bay River.
Early in his carving career, Ron sold some of his bird carvings in gift shops, including in the Traverse City area. Andrew Wyeth's wife, also now deceased, acquired one of those carvings and ultimately contacted him about creating a special piece for her husband as a birthday present.
As a result, in 1998 the Smiths were asked first to attend an art museum-related function in Philadelphia, Pa., where they met both Jamie and Andrew Wyeth, followed by a personal invitation to deliver the completed bird a Leach's Storm-Petrel to the Wyeth compound in Chad's Ford, Maine. Today, that experience remains a treasured one for Ron, who is also a retired English teacher for Alcona Community Schools.
Ron was asked to carve the Leach's Storm-Petrel because it was a bird often spotted by the Wyeths at their place in Maine.
"When Mrs. Wyeth unpacked the bird and said it has a heartbeat well, there have been many highlights in my career, but that was a key one," Ron said.
Ron's wife, Sharron, also remembers the experience with an equal amount of awe.
"We have been Wyeth fans forever," Sharron said. "We were able to have tea with Mrs. Wyeth looking out at the coast. It was the same room where Andrew Wyeth's paintings, including his famous 'Christina's World,' were hung to dry."
Another high point for the couple came when the Flint Institute of Arts asked to display 50 of Ron's bird carvings during a 50th anniversary celebration of the art museum.
"Just around the corner from Ron's birds were the Wyeth paintings that the museum has in its collection," Sharron said. "We were just thrilled by that."
The couple also tells the story of a prominent family who once owned a winery dynasty in California and vacationed frequently on Lake Michigan, where they would purchase Ron's pieces from a Traverse City shop that carried them. Eventually, several of the family members persuaded the shop owner to put them in touch with Ron. They telephoned him and asked if they could visit him at their place in Hubbard Lake to commission a piece.
"They ordered a Red-Tailed Hawk and we got to deliver that one to their solar-powered winery in California," Ron said. "It was a magnificent house with its own landing strip."
Ron also crafted a Snowy Egret for the same family, and that time delivered it to their place in the San Francisco area.
"We felt good about that one. It got to sit on a beautiful grand piano overlooking San Francisco Bay," Sharron said. "You just would never know that in these woods in Hubbard Lake live these people who have some pretty exciting experiences because of carving."
Ron, now 74, attended Alma College and Eastern Michigan University where he earned a Masters in Literature. He taught English for 32 years, mostly in Alcona County. He met his wife, whom he married in 1965, while teaching in Novi. Both are lifelong bird watchers who usually spend their winters in Pharr, Texas, which is viewed as one of the major birding areas in the country.
Ron has carved more than 200 different species for collectors using the media of basswood and oils. He relies exclusively on hand tools, including an adz and a variety of knives. Many years ago, his wife bought him his first carving knife and a block of wood. He jokingly maintains that his first attempt at bird carving looked more like a door knob than an actual bird.
Over time, Ron perfected his skills. Since the early 1970s, he has been doing an annual Christmas card that features a photograph of one of his bird carvings. The cards are considered quite collectible by friends and acquaintances, who often frame them.
Spending so much time carving a piece only to give it away to others doesn't bother Ron.
"People always ask how can I let them go, but I know that they always go to warm and loving homes," he said.
Though he has carved over 1,000 birds for other people, Ron also has kept approximately 40 of his pieces to display in their home. Additionally, he's made it a practice to carve small bird pins for his wife. That collection of pins now numbers about 45.
The couple enjoys their home at Hubbard Lake, where Ron can observe living models for his work: cardinals making brilliant splashes of color against evergreen; ruffed grouse and wild turkeys feeding on the deck; woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches and goldfinches flocking to feeders.
In addition to carving, Ron also has used his literary skills to express his love for birds. He edited the Thunder Bay, Michigan Aubudon Society newsletter for 30 years and was one of the contributing writers for a nature column appearing in the Valley Morning Star of Harlingen, Texas.
Ron has contributed articles on birding for the disabled to Bird Watcher's Digest and pieces on wildlife to the magazine, Rio Grande Nature. He also has written a nature column in The McAllen Monitor of McAllen, Texas. His writings and carvings can be found at www.ronsmithbirdcarvings.weebly.com or www.texasnature.blogspot.com.