September 17, 2014

Gulfshore Artisans: Jim Sprankle, woodcarver

After flaming out as a minor league pitcher, Jim Sprankle made his name carving wood.

Alex Stafford

Jim Sprankle

Avian woodcarver

Age: 79

Years in the trade: 45

Got his start: Making decoys for hunting

In Southwest Florida since: 1994

When Jim Sprankle signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1952, he looked at the $25,000 signing bonus and told his father, “I’ll never have to work again!” “I’ll bet you do,” his father replied, dryly.

It turns out that dad was right. Although he played professionally until 1964, he never made it above Double-A. To this day, Sprankle can be found in his studio, bent over a piece of wood, working. At 79, he has no intentions of stopping.

“I’ll do this as long as I can,” he says. “As long as I can see and use my hands, I’ll keep carving.”

But this isn’t just some retiree’s cute hobby. For Sprankle, carving is his livelihood, and he takes it seriously. These days, Sprankle whittles away on Sanibel Island, but at one point, he was so serious that he converted part of his Chesapeake Bay property into an aviary. His extreme attention to detail has resulted in many awards and widespread recognition as one of the best bird carvers in the world. Sprankle even produced a specially commissioned bald eagle for former president George W. Bush—which was recently installed in Bush’s new presidential library.

We caught up with Sprankle to hear how one migrates from foul balls to carving waterfowl and how he’s adapted to sculpting the birds of Southwest Florida.

Foul fowl

“I did ducks and waterfowl for many years, but people buy what they see. And living here, I couldn’t give a duck carving away. But I like carving herons and spoonbills; I love the new challenge.”

Post-mortem

“I have a special permit that lets me have samples of these birds in my possession. I can’t harvest them, but if something dies at J.N. ‘Ding’ Darling, they’ll put it in a freezer, and I can come and get it and use it as a study skin.”

Attention to detail

“I want my models to be totally anatomically correct. I take every measurement of every feather. I want to know exactly how the feathers lie. I want to know how their neck would look if they were looking one way or another—it’s a challenge and that’s why I like it.”

Eagle lands in Washington

“The eagle I gave to President Bush really stemmed from my work with Ding Darling (National Wildlife Refuge). I was the president of the park’s friends group. So when [former Secretary of the Interior] Gail Norton came to town, we’d go out to lunch. She saw my work and said, ‘You know, one of those would look good in the White House.’”

Fooling even Mother Nature

“Ding Darling asked me to do a mangrove cuckoo, and I didn’t even know what it was. But, I did it and they put it in the mangroves to attract other mangrove cuckoos. When the live birds came, they banded them so they could determine their habits. Once the decoy had served its purpose, they auctioned it off and it went for $60,000. The guy who bought it insisted on it staying at the refuge. If you’ve ever seen a grown man with tears in his eyes, that was me.”

—AC Shilton

 

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