Maine’s Roland LaVallee cuts raw chunks of pine into colorful carvings of birds, bringing springtime inside when we need it most.
By Annie Graves
Feb 22 2018
When I first arrive in the coastal town of Eastport, Maine—practically in Canada—fields of wild lupine are blooming across the countryside, bursting into pink and purple spires. But by the time this story appears, we’ll be staring down winter’s long white spyglass, looking to glimpse the first signs of spring.
Regardless of the season, an uncommon number of birds can be found roosting just blocks from the center of this artsy-vibe town, population 1,300. While Roland LaVallee’s Crow Tracks home and studio might look like any other charming gray clapboard 1860s New Englander, behind its laid-back façade there’s avian anarchy—albeit the carved-wood sort.
The front room flaunts the evidence, floor to ceiling. An imposing pileated woodpecker guards the heights over the fireplace. A white heron crouches low on the mantel. Seabirds stalk along hunks of driftwood, and crows clasp folded dollar bills in their beaks. Shelf upon shelf of tiny golden birds cling to stumps of polished wood, and chickadees sidle up to phoebes. It’s the quietest bird sanctuary you can imagine.
With his neatly carved brown moustache and carefully whittled beard, Roland resembles some of his more human sculptures, although most of these reflect his humorous side—which bubbles up easily when asked what brought him to Maine.
“Connecticut was too full of people,” Roland says with a dry twinkle, recalling why he moved here in 1977, then worked in Eastport’s textile mill for the next 20 years. All the while, he carved wood, a pastime since childhood, when he would create spears, decoys, and “little faces out of pine—the same things I carve now.”
But in Maine, there was an additional incentive. “There was always the chance you’d get laid off at the textile mill,” he recalls. “I had books on making decoys—I thought I should make some and see what happens, see about selling them in the gift shops on Route 1.” He smiles, remembering those early carvings. “My decoys were funky as can be. I was using house paints, learning as I went along.”
We walk to the adjacent room, where Roland cuts raw chunks of pine into rough bird shapes, then shaves more and more wood away until the bird within emerges. The workshop is warm with the colors of wood, the smell of sawdust. “Pine spins in my hands easy,” he says. “I work with stuff that works well with me.”
This includes a jumble of favorite tools housed in a battered trunk in the kitchen, where Roland sits to paint birds at a glass-topped table looking toward Passamaquoddy and Cobscook bays, across to Franklin Roosevelt’s summer place on Campobello Island. (The view is breathtaking; this is “where the light is,” he says.) Roland lifts the trunk lid: X-Acto knives, delicate chisels, small paintbrushes, and a refined wood-burning tool for adding feathers and other details, bought in the late 1980s. “I’ve kicked out about 8,000 birds with it,” he says.
The evidence is all around: There are currently about 435 birds in the front room, Roland estimates. Some years he turns out lots of chickadees; other years he’s busy working on big commissions. Regardless, he says, “fall and winter I work on my inventory. I know, for example, that I’ll need six puffins, six herons. January comes, and I start doing the weirder stuff—clams, mermaids, monsters. It’s a long winter. We’re surrounded by cold water. Spring doesn’t come until maybe the last week in May.”
When spring does finally arrive, Roland will work outside under the apple tree, carving on a chopping block that overlooks the terraced back garden that he tends with his wife, Barbara Barrett. He’ll move around the yard with the sunshine, following the light. “We get a lot of wind,” he says. “But the good weather is nice … when it comes.”
Back in the studio, Roland cradles a snowy owl in his hands, pointing out details of paint and carving. “I get up every day, carve a different bird.” His face lights up with this bird in hand. “I’m having a good time.”
Prices range from $40 for a small crow sculpture to $700 for a custom bird piece. For more information, call 207-853-2336 or go to crowtracks.com.