Vic Kirkman of Raleigh got serious in 1989 at age 50 after kicking around from one job to another. He was a student at N.C. State for a couple of years, but that didnt work out, so he tried insurance, retail sales, making signs, even mixing paint.
Nothing suited him, so he retired and found eternal happiness turning a block of wood into a decorative duck decoy.
Now I make a living from my passion, he said. You could say that carving is my life.
Kirkmans works now sell for thousands of dollars and have garnered many a blue ribbon and best in shows, and consistently place high in world championships. But these honors alone failed to satisfy him. He found another love teaching others to carve waterfowl decoys.
From his home studio in northwest Raleigh, he has drawn hundreds of students from many walks of life, young and old, and from diverse geographic locations. His carving classroom now has grown to the internet.
I just work very hard at it and try to develop a methodology that can be passed on to others, Kirkman said. If you have a desire, I can teach you to carve and paint. Its not a natural talent, but a learned skill.
On a hot Tuesday morning, class was in session. Six guys and one woman bent over their work. No one was talking. They were too intent on the work in hand, carving and painting feathers, wings, tails, heads, all coming to life out of a block of tupelo.
Wayne McKay, a retired airline pilot from Fuquay-Varina, is the freshman at the table.
Im struggling, he said. Im not artistic but its a lot of fun.
To his right, Lamar Jones, a retired chemist from Florida, had taken time away from visiting his grandchildren to create an Arctic Tern in flight. The course was a birthday gift in 2002 from his family.
Dennis Crumpler of Garner has been a Kirkman student for nine years.
Gerald Van Dyke, the veteran of the group, has been here for 17 years. He retired after a 38-year career as a botany professor at N.C. State.
Dwight Stephens, a retired bank examiner from Bracy, Va., drove three hours round-trip to hone his carving skills.
Charlotte Totulis, 78, was one of Kirkmans first students. She carefully applied brush strokes to red-breasted merganser chicks.
Were like a family, Kirkman said. We go out to eat together and go to carving shows together.
Carving classes meet twice per week on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and afternoons. Another group gathers on Monday nights. Kirkman teaches youngsters ages 12 to 16 on Saturday mornings without charge. His classes draw students from near and far, including a veterinarian who drives from Tarboro once a week for the night class.
A lot of my students come here to wind down, Kirkman said. Carving wood is very soothing; its a great escape from stress.
Kirkman introduces students to carving simple working decoys. Then if they desire, he teaches realistic, decorative carvings that resemble a live duck down to the smallest detail.
Painting is a significant part of the process, one that frustrates many students.
Painting is all together different from carving, Kirkman said. Its a different skill set. Most have trouble; theyre afraid of it. I start out by teaching color theory, then application and techniques.
Kirkman does more teaching these days than carving. He says he has won enough ribbons and awards for his work. He accepts one or two commissions annually. A pair of Red-breasted Mergansers take up most of his carving time. Kirkman already has his $5,000 fee.
His love of wood and knives and power tools originated from Kirkmans father. He remembers his dad crafting a bird dog inlay into a coffee table. During his Boy Scout days, growing up in Lumberton, Kirkman and his dad carved neckerchief slides, knife handles and gun stocks.
I give my dad all the credit, he said. I think he would be proud of how Ive turned out.
Kirkman also has been influenced by the Cajun style of carving, which emphasizes realistic work.
I approach carving as an art form, he said. I see it as a folk art rather than a craft.
For the future, Kirkman has one big project in mind a duck habitat encased in glass with a Hen Mallard protecting her baby chicks from an approaching turtle.
Not bad work for a guy who struggled until he found his niche in life at age 50.