For Spencer Tinkham, it is his life.
Tucked away in Norfolk’s Algonquin Park, the lights of a workshop glow in the dark. Most of the neighbors have called it a day. Not Spencer Tinkham. At 24 years old, he’s got plenty of energy. He’s also obsessed. Busy evolving.
To call Tinkham a woodcarver sells him short, though the ribbons and plaques that crowd his walls attest to his skills with duck decoys – including two first-place wins in the youth division of the Ward World Championship Wildfowl Carving Competition in Ocean City, Maryland.
These days, those are just sweet spots on his resume. Birds remain Tinkham’s mainstay, but he’s spread his wings beyond competition-grade carving. The boy wonder is now a conservation-minded sculptor – prowling shorelines and yards for the kinds of things most people would haul to the dump: a chunk of worm-holed wood, a curiously crooked branch, a collapsed chicken coop.
Junk art? No way. Hand carving, precise joinery and intricate finishing meld flotsam into elegant, lifelike creatures that sell for as much as $3,000. An almost-done sandhill crane seems ready to leap off Tinkham’s work table. There’s no hint that its spindly legs were made from washed-up welding rods.
“It would probably be easier just to go buy the stuff I use,” he says, “but I really like the character and age – things that once had a life of their own. They’ve just got an edge, you know?”
Tinkham loves the outdoors and having a small hand in cleaning up the waterways. He grew up duck hunting with his father and grandfather on Back Bay and the Eastern Shore, and fishing the rivers and creeks with his younger brother, Clay.
“I don’t hunt much anymore – it’s more about birding now – but hunting gave me a chance to really see everything up close. The details of every feather and how they all fit together; the scoop of a wing, the colors. Everyone else would still be hunting and I’d be behind the duck blind studying anatomy.”
Television and video games were scarce in his childhood. Jeff Tinkham, an attorney, and Denise, a private school teacher, gave their boys books and crayons instead. But drawing what he saw wasn’t enough. He started whittling soap, raiding the family bathrooms for supplies.
“Every shower was fair game,” Tinkham says. “I wanted 3-D – something I could hold in my hand.”
He moved on to scrap wood and made his first real piece at 8 years old – a palm-sized mallard carved with a Swiss Army knife given to him by his grandfather, Jim Tinkham.
“He encouraged me to keep going, to make some full-sized decoys we could hunt over.”
But his grandfather, sick with cancer, died before those first decoys were done.
“I didn’t feel like I got to say goodbye to him. I think I kept working on those decoys as a way to feel closer to him – like we were continuing our conversation.”
His original armada sank. So did the second. And the third. Maybe even the fourth.
“Working decoys have to stay upright and float,” he laughs. “I had a lot to learn.”
In summers, he carved out on a pier; in winters, on the back porch. Year-round, he carved in his dreams.
“I couldn’t stop. I wanted to keep getting better. I’d think about it on the drive to school. And in school. And in bed. ‘Do I want him feeding or striking or getting ready to fly? How do I do it? What’s the next step?’ ”
In search of mentors and feedback – he didn’t know any other carvers – Tinkham began entering decoy competitions. They’re popular around the Chesapeake Bay, Great Lakes, Massachusetts and other waterfowl meccas. Collecting is big business. Two decoys by master carver Elmer Crowell sold for $1 million each in 2007.
“I figured the best way to learn was to have judges tell me what I was doing wrong,” Tinkham says.
He listened. And started winning and selling. But carving still seemed like just a “nice hobby,” he says. “There’s a lot of starving artists.”
After graduating from Norfolk Collegiate, he headed to Baylor University in Texas. Armed with an academic scholarship, he earned a degree in economics, figuring it would lead to a “real adult job.”
“But I’d carved every summer through college. And I went right back to it as soon as I graduated last December. No class ever lit any other fire.”
Now, he’s surrendered, deciding that this window – while he’s still living with his parents – is the best time to see if a carver can depend on his craft. He recently became engaged. The pressure is on to make a living.
His parents want him to take the shot.
“How many people find their life’s passion at 8 years old?” his mother says. “It’s amazing. Where I see firewood, he sees a bird head. He’s been dragging stuff home forever.”
Much of it’s been trash – litter he couldn’t stand to leave where he found it blighting the banks. But some objects he squirreled away.
“The weathering on an old piece of wood just fascinates me,” he says. “What the salt and sun and tide do to it. The cracks and holes and textures. It’s beautiful. One day it hit me: I could combine conservation and carving. I feel like I’ve only recently found my direction.”
Finishes are one of his specialties. He studies old decoys and antique patinas to capture their mellowed look, mixing his oil paints from raw pigment powder. Completed pieces, signed with a distinctive “TINK,” move from workshop to house, where herons and godwits and curlews occupy shelves, mantel, coffee tables and corners. Fish – another interest – dot the walls.
His mother tries not to fall in love with any of them.
“I never know when I’m going to walk in and they’ll be gone!” she says.
She points to a handsome owl in her kitchen. Carved from a piece of telephone pole, it’s perched on a porch spindle scavenged from a Norfolk house that caught on fire. Onyx eyes gleam. Its beak – fashioned from a snapping turtle claw – dangles a mouse by the tail, which was made from the leather of a worn belt.
“There used to be two of these owls sitting here,” Denise says. “I told him he’d better not sell this one.”