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John Sheffey holds a large mallard that took considerable time to complete in his Dallas County workshop.
Feathery Carvings Amazing to Behold
by Alvin Benn
John Sheffey’s silent owls, eagles, ducks, hawks and cardinals look so real you just want to reach out and stroke their feathers.
Sheffey sees that kind of reaction all the time and just smiles. He knows, in a way, the urge to touch is a reward for the countless hours he puts in to create his realistic-looking feathery works of art.
"The man is absolutely amazing," said Black Belt Treasures Director Sulynn Creswell. "There’s no other way to describe him. His attention to detail is phenomenal."
What makes it even more amazing is the fact Sheffey - a 70-year-old Tennessee native and retired Army colonel who saw his share of combat in Vietnam - taught himself to do what he does so well.
The training he received came from his eyes as he examined books and blueprints. The birds helped too, circling overhead or coming to rest on tree branches at his 230-acre spread in south Dallas County.
"I don’t just watch ’em," he said. "I also study ’em. I look at the color transition, how they fly, how they move and how they rest."
Sheffey applies paint to his mallard creation at his farm in Minter.
Sheffey and his wife Peggy arrived two decades ago to enjoy country living, wait for future grandchildren to arrive one day and, most of all, breathe in the fresh air at one of Alabama’s most isolated areas.
"Any tree you see here I own," said a man whose business card has one word below his name - woodcarver. "We love it here. No need to really go anywhere else."
A chemical engineer by trade with an inquisitive mind eager to learn something new, Sheffey became captivated by what he saw overhead and plunged into a hobby that quickly became something much more.
His carvings have earned him thousands of dollars since he started, but, when costly equipment is figured into the equation along with untold hours creating his wood masterpieces, it’s easy to see he’s not in it to get rich.
"I just enjoy what I’m doing," he explained. "It’s never been for the money anyway. It’s something that has become a part of me and that’s why I do it."
John Sheffey requires magnifying glasses to make sure every cut is perfect on his work such as this cardinal.
His farm is filled with Asian pear trees, water oaks and other varieties, especially pine trees slowly growing as a future farm investment. What he’s settled on, however, is wood from Tupelo gum trees recovered from swampy areas near his house after loggers have departed.
Tupelo gums can grow as tall as 90 feet, but it’s the base Sheffey wants for his bird carvings. It’s relatively soft when compared with the rock-hard wood of other trees - ideal for the kind of work he does.
Once the logging crews leave and the stumps are available, Sheffey, with permission, literally digs in to get what he needs. He says he has enough wood now to last longer than he will.
"I don’t sleep good because I can’t wait for morning so I can get up and do it again," he said, as he flashed an ear-to-ear grin. "This has become more than I thought it would, but I don’t have any regrets."
His hobby may not compare with Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, but those who marvel at his carvings gain their own appreciation of fine art. That’s just what it is.
Visitors to Camden’s Black Belt Treasures, a business catering to area artisans who display their creations there, take one look at Sheffey’s birds and stop in their tracks.
Soon they are asking questions about how he did it, how much they cost and often ask how they can meet him.
As far as cost is concerned, eyebrows might tend to rise a bit when they learn how much is being asked. A close inspection of the birds won’t take long to realize they are worth every penny.
Peggy Sheffey holds three baby bluebirds created by her talented husband.
The average cost of one of his beautiful creations is around $450 to $500. For some of the larger bird carvings, the price can be as much as $1,000 or more.
When art lovers lean close to his carved ducks, it’s hard to believe the detail in front of them. The lines are painstakingly placed in the right spots by Sheffey who uses large wraparound magnifying glasses to get a closer-than-normal look.
"Most people automatically think he just takes one of his duck decoys and attaches duck feathers to it," she said. "Then, they get real close and realize how many intricate cuts in the wood he had to make to get it where he’s satisfied."
The head and body are done separately. When finished, they are joined together by Sheffey who uses a strong epoxy adhesive to make sure they don’t come apart.
Creswell, whose office in Camden is about 12 miles from the Sheffey farm, said she heard about him several years ago and drove out for a chat. It didn’t take long for her to size up his artistic talents and arrange to display his birds at Black Belt Treasures.
"John wants his birds to be anatomically correct and that’s why it takes so long to complete each one," she said. "He doesn’t want to just carve something. Each has got to be perfect."
This red-tailed hawk is prominently displayed on a table in the Sheffey house in Dallas County.
Peggy has had a close-up view of her husband’s work since he started and marvels at what he’s accomplished in such a short time.
"I cannot visualize the birds he carves," she said. "Creating something so beautiful out of a block of wood still amazes me. It once took him three months to finish one bird."
Sheffey makes his birds in a shop a few feet from the family house and not far from a huge pond stocked with bass and brim. The shop is where he uses tiny metal carvers along with wood burning and buffing tools.
The process wouldn’t be complete without proper paint and he applies several coats to each creation.
The equipment isn’t cheap, but he’s not complaining. It’s become almost as important to him as good health - something that has been giving him problems of late.
He’s had a heart condition and passed out several times while at work, sending him to a hospital for help. The result has been a pacemaker to keep his heart ticking and him on the go from sunup to sundown.
His companion in the shop and around the Hickory Stick Farm is "Dixie," a 13-year-old short-haired German pointer whose heavy breathing and painful gait indicate her days may be numbered.
Near the shop is a "barn" where wood is stacked high for future carving projects. Usually parked inside is a New Holland tractor to help clear away heavy brush.
When he’s not carving birds in his workshop, John Sheffey hops onto his New Holland tractor to clear brush at his Hickory Stick Farm in Dallas County.
Sheffey usually kills a few rattlers and copperheads every summer. In addition to his bird carvings, he also finds a way to "wrap" a snake creation around one or more of his walking sticks.
He doesn’t have an expensive, hard-charging marketing firm to help him sell his spectacular carvings. He does a lot of that himself, but doesn’t plan to give himself any ulcers worrying about how to sell them.
Sheffey has become popular at arts and crafts shows, especially those featuring special artistic talents. He’s been to several of them and usually comes home with awards.
For more information about John Sheffey and his bird carvings, call Black Belt Treasures at 334-682-9878, e-mail: info@blackbelt treasures.com or write: Black Belt Treasures, 209 Claiborne St., Camden, AL 36726.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.