Brown's Foster Home Builds Birdhouses - The Beginning - 1997
"ART SAVES LIVES." I'm not sure who said this, but I read it on a T-shirt and I think there's some truth in it. As part of a school program sponsored by Brown's Foster Home, my students and I decided it would be fun to build something. Inspired by our hikes in the local woods and an interest in wildlife, we decided to build birdhouses. We gathered some scrap lumber, a handsaw, a hammer and nails, and managed to make a wooden box. I said to one student, "Graham, would you like to add anything to this?" He really enjoyed the assembly process, especially the hammering, and without hesitation finished our first bird house (picture below).
I chose the placement for the hole and perch and our collaboration was complete. (5/96) Graham continues to be the assembly man and the driving force behind this project. My other student, Tim, preferred to build a bird house with a more traditional design, a salt box or cape with a shingled roof. The problem - what to use for shingles? We brainstormed...what about pieces cut from regular shingles? Too big and time consuming; Popsicle sticks? Too expensive. We searched through books and craft magazines for an idea and Finally in desperation began looking through all the drawers and cabinets in our classroom hoping for inspiration. At last, I came across a bag of pinecones left over from Christmas projects and saw what we were looking for. I said to Tim, what about these? I ripped a pedal off the pinecone, squared off one edge with the scissors and said "see?" Tim's face brightened, he smiled from ear to ear and said "yeah! cool." The roof shingles are our trademark and Tim is now the roofing expert, shingling almost all the roofs. I believe Tim thinks the shingles were his idea. Oh well it was, after all, it was a collaborative effort.
Since May of 1996 we have built about 70 birdhouses. Because we use all scrap and used lumber each house is different and we are always a little surprised by the finished product. To be practical we did research about birdhouses to determine specification such as size of the house, placement and diameter of entry hole; and access for clean out. The roofs are shingled using waterproof adhesive, then dipped in Spar Varnish creating a very durable finish. The few people, who have seen them, seem impressed with the product and we have sold about a third of them.
We have had fun with this project. The guys are excited about the money they make from the sales and want to build more. This may turn into a vocational opportunity for them. For now, however, it is only a part of our school program - Arts & Crafts/Carpentry, it has provided us with an atmosphere of learning, enjoyment, challenge and pride. Each birdhouse is different, they are rough, bent nails, dents, crooked and yet it is this that makes them unique and adds personality. Look closely and you'll see it all. They are not just birdhouses, they are works of art. Art may not save lives, but it enriches ours.
June 1997. Mark
News Update -- 2000
THREE YEARS AND EIGHT HUNDRED BIRDHOUSES AGO we had hopes that the birdhouse project might become a vocational opportunity for the young men involved. Today, besides the educational benefits, the guys receive a paycheck for their efforts.
Our creations have continued to evolve and improve, as we all become better at our craft. The birdhouses have been displayed at the Portland Museum of Art and the State Capitol as part of an exhibit called "A Matter of Perception" - art by artists with disabilities. They have been featured in auctions for Maine Public Television and the Children's Discovery Museum. The birdhouses are sold in fine gift shops throughout Maine. This year, the birdhouses were selected for inclusion in the Artistree Open House, the Bowdoin College "Sunsplash" and the Maine Festival - a celebration of the arts. At each of these events our birdhouses were well received and the belief, that our creations transcend typical birdhouse building and enter into the realm of collectible folk art, was confirmed again and again.
Each birdhouse is stamped with our logo, photographed, numbered and dated and although many buyers keep them inside as collectibles, they are constructed for exterior use.
The unusual and sometimes unexpected results we achieve building our birdhouses happen because everyone involved in the project adds his unique influence to the finished piece. Besides suggesting the name, Recycled Reflections, for this enterprise, Curt Browns uncanny ability to find antique and recycled material provide us with the ingredients that lead us in the creative process. Graham and Ben encourage us to produce and their talents at assembly and improved abilities as carpenters, nailing, drilling and sanding have impressed everyone. Timmy is a big help at every stage of production and his persistence preparing pinecone shingles allows us to continue using pine cone roofs - the distinguishing feature of our birdhouses.
Scott and Keith do a great job shingling the roofs, each with his unique style and I have fun with the perches. Aaron and Tom are the two newest members of the team and we look forward to their input. Building the birdhouses continues to be a truly collaborative effort extending even beyond the workshop. Local carpenters call us if they have scrap lumber they think we might be able to use. Neighbors bring us pine cones. The other day I stopped at the hardware store and one of the young men working there approached me with some tree fungus he had found while hunting. He thought we might be able to use it as a perch for one of the birdhouses. Foster homes, agencies, schools and buyers tour the workshop to see the men at Recycled Reflections demonstrate their expertise at building birdhouses.
As we begin this first year of the new millennium Recycled Reflections - the birdhouse project, is the cornerstone of the day program at Browns Foster Home. The sense of accomplishment and dignity the guys get from their efforts building birdhouses is the main reason for Curt Browns continued creative and financial support. It is our hope to produce and sell enough birdhouses to make it a self sustaining enterprise. Last year we built 304 "one of a kind" birdhouses and sold nearly all of them. Most were wholesaled to several fine gift shops across the state of Maine. Some were sold at craft shows and we recently sold a few on the internet auction eBay. This year we plan to build about 600 birdhouses and try to increase retail sales at craft shows, and on the internet. As we continue this project we are committed to not losing sight of what makes it special - we are facilitators for a partnership of artists with disabilities.
The guys work at their own pace and are not forced to work. However because they enjoy what they do so much, we are usually trying to keep up with them. We will also continue to use natural and recycled materials in the construction process. The materials make the birdhouses, in a sense, "new antiques". If we continue to be blessed as we have been thus far, we will be building birdhouses for some time to come. As you consider our birdhouses remember, as I stated before, each birdhouse is different, they are rough, bent nails, dents, crooked and yet it is this that makes them unique and adds personality. Look closely and you we see it all. They are not just birdhouses, they are works of art. They enrich our lives and we hope they will enrich yours.