Carving a niche in the Northeast Kingdom
by Virginia Lindauer Simmon
Jim Maas retired from a career as an orthopedic surgeon eight years ago to follow his passion, carving birds from wood. The heart of his company, Birds in Wood LLC, is located in a converted part of his garage in the Northeast Kingdom community of Morgan.
“I’m not a builder; I’m a subtractor.” That’s Jim Maas describing his work.
Deftly using high-speed power tools such as a band saw, sanders, grinders, and burrs, Maas creates life-size birds that are so realistic they need to be touched to discover they’re made of wood.
Maas and his wife, Billie, operate their small business, Birds in Wood LLC, on a 15-acre retreat in Morgan, east-southeast of Derby near Seymour Lake in the Northeast Kingdom.
Although Maas has had the heart and soul of an artist for most of his life, he did not begin carving full time until eight years ago, when he retired from a long career as an orthopedic surgeon, practicing at North Country Hospital in Newport.
The wood Jim Maas uses for his birds is tupelo from the Louisiana and Carolina bayous — “It’s a Cajun industry,” says Maas. Tupelo is used extensively by woodcarvers. Quite light in weight, it is also used for shipping containers and interior parts of furniture. Pictured are a few of Maas’ birds. (continues below images)
Green Heron Detail
Asked why he chose medicine, he’s quick to answer. “Back then I was young and idealistic and foolish and wouldn’t do it again,” he says. “No; really, I wanted to help people, and it seemed like a fun thing to do. I liked science — just was intrigued by the human condition and the body — and it seemed like it would be fun to explore.”
“Fun to explore” could be Maas’ motto; it comes up again and again in conversation. “I’ve always been a frustrated artist,” he says. “I went through life looking for a medium. I tried flat art; I could see it but couldn’t get it out — that third dimension. People would say, ‘Oh, that’s good.’ I’d say, ‘No, it isn’t.’
“I tried pen and ink, oils, drawing, dabbling. Then I tried carpentry — woodworking. That was frustrating because I couldn’t get a joint that was square enough to satisfy me, and then the wood would go and move.
“There wasn’t anything I did very much of. I tried quilting — it was color and shapes and stuff. It was fun, but it didn’t grab me. You’ve gotta be grabbed.”
He decided to give whittling a try, he says, “but I never learned how to sharpen a knife, and if you don’t have sharp instruments, you’ll hurt yourself. My hands used to ache when I whittled.”
An orthopedic meeting at the Equinox in Manchester would provide the spark for his future. “In the lobby was a bird on a glove,” he says. “And I couldn’t believe it wasn’t a bird and wasn’t a glove.”
The bird was the work of renowned carver Floyd Scholz of Hancock. A self-confessed “book freak,” Maas headed for the hotel gift shop, where he found a book by Scholz called How to Carve a Bird. He arranged to meet Scholz and take a group of classes.
“He took me under his wing,” says Maas. “He said, ‘You have to take my class and learn how to paint.’ I’ve enjoyed the painting part of it because it gets the third dimension out. I was using all acrylics, but I’m now learning how to work with oils. There are some books out there I’ve just discovered.”
Although most of his career was spent in Vermont, Maas is not a native. He grew up in Susquehanna, a small town in northern Pennsylvania on the New York border.
He studied premed at Penn State, medicine at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, and went to Northwestern in Chicago for his internship and residency.
He met Billie, who was from the Buffalo area, when they were working as counselors at Cradle Beach, a camp for disabled and disadvantaged children near Buffalo. He was finishing up at Penn State. They married two years later, in 1969. Billie, a recreational therapist, worked at Shriners Hospital in Philadelphia while he studied at Jefferson.
His studies finished, Maas lost his deferment and was drafted into the U.S. Army for four years, most of which was spent at Fort Knox, Ky., where their sons, Eric and Stephen, were born in 1976 and ’78.
When it came time to leave the service, he and Billie had opportunities to return to the city, but they didn’t want to raise the boys in an urban environment. “I’m basically a hick at heart,” says Maas. “I wanted the kids to have small-town values.”
He was exploring small towns they could investigate when one of his fellow draftees — also a doctor — mentioned he was returning to Burlington. “There was a magazine with an advertisement for a doctor, and I said, ‘Hey, what do you know about this Newport place?’ He told me he used to go up there and run a clinic.”
Vermont was good to them. “I’m happy with how my kids came out. They went through the public school system and ended up in good places in life.” Eric, the older son, has just launched his second company, says Maas, “optimizing search engines for companies. His wife is an OB-gynie resident in Portland [Ore.], but he can work from anywhere.
“My younger son is a Renaissance guy. He went to Hamilton College (Eric attended Dartmouth) and studied creative writing and German.” He laughs, then exclaims, as if amazed, “He ended up six weeks out of college with a job as a German interpreter in Burlington!”
Stephen has since quit that job and works through the Internet as an independent German translator. “He does probably 40 to 50 German patent applications a week. Who knew?”
Stephen is also a filmmaker and a musician, says Maas, “and the father of a cute little kid about 2 years old. His wife is a psychologist in the St. Albans school system.”
The Maases sold their big house on the lake and bought the place in Morgan when he retired. He still owns “an office nobody wants to buy yet,” which he’s renting out. They built a workshop for him in part of the garage, and converted a bedroom for his painting studio, “away from the dust,” he says.
Maas’ days could be the envy of anyone. “I get up, eat some breakfast, go in my shop — usually I have two to three projects going. Sometime in the afternoon, I take the dog for a walk, sometimes I get on my bicycle, then I work some more, and that’s pretty much it until suppertime.”
Power carving is very gentle, he says. “It’s almost like peeling apples — you fondle your pieces. A lot of what I do is tactile. It needs to feel right.” He is continually exploring new approaches.
Recently, he’s working to bring feeling and emotion into his pieces. “So I try to tell stories.”
He mentions, for example, a woman who commissioned a sculpture of two crows. “Her father died,” Maas says, “and his spirit bird was a crow. Her mother felt good about crows, too.” The client wanted a piece that would involve two crows and the feeling of the parents for each other. “So I’ve made hugging crows. I think it’s going to be a nice piece.”
He’s begun to explore working in alabaster and is trying interpretive designs in wood. To make bird feet, he has taken up welding and braising — “playing with metal,” he calls it.
As she did for many years during his medical career when she ran his office, Billie handles the business side of Birds in Wood. She arranges to collect works for shows from his galleries in Camden, Maine; Stowe; and Colebrook, N.H., and handles travel arrangements. Marketing has been challenging for them, and it’s one reason he’s begun to focus on commission work. The website, www.birdsinwood.com, was designed by Stephen.
“Floyd is an entrepreneur; he knows how to do it,” says Maas. “He writes books, gives lectures, schmoozes with all the nice people. I carve birds.”
That, of course, is an understatement. At the World Carving Championships, Maas won Best in the World for intermediate carvers a few years ago, to earn the title Advanced Carver. That’s one step below Master Carver, the top level. He didn’t win the Master Carver competition this year, but he’ll be back.
“I really enjoy the intellectual challenge,” he says. “To do a bird well, you have to know a bird; have to figure out what they do; get some of their attitude into it.
“Art, even for a business, can bring a focus of color and thought that people may not realize. If people think, ‘Well, this bird envisions or portrays where we’re heading,’ and it can do that, I can focus thought.” •