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Sticklers for accuracy and expertise, as befitted their NASA backgrounds (Mary was a receptionist at Cape Canaveral when she and Porter met), they embarked on an exhaustive research program. During Vermont's spring and fall turkey-hunting seasons, Brown haunted the checking station in Pawlet, where he became friendly with Jeffrey Wallin, a wildlife biologist for the Vermont Fish and Game Department. Brown studied dead birds and photographed them from every angle. Bart Jacob, a local turkey hunter and manufacturer of calls and hunting accessories, brought a mounted gobbler to the Browns' studio—a bright, airy, converted sugarhouse overlooking the meandering Mettawee—for further study. "Both the mount and the dead birds looked, well, dead," Porter says. "We wanted to capture the sense of life, the enormous vitality of a living bird."
Wild turkeys have incredibly keen vision and hearing—according to Wallin, their ability to resolve images is 10 times more powerful than that of the average human, their hearing eight times as acute. You don't just sneak up on them, with either gun or camera. But Brown camouflaged a battered old golf cart, fitted himself out in a turkey hunter's camouflage clothing and went out to observe. "I learned where they were 'using,' winter and summer," he says. "Eventually, I could drive right to them, where they were feeding or dusting or taking the sun, and, although they were nervous, they let me and Mary take pictures of them with our long lenses."
As they pursued this crash course in wildlife espionage, the Browns became increasingly confident in their understanding of turkey behavior. Finally it was time to convert research to concept and concept to carving. "The main thing I wanted to capture was the explosive power of the bird on the wing," says Brown, "and the very curve of the wing was what conveyed that sense." On the upstroke of a takeoff, the turkey's alulas, which correspond to human thumbs, reach forward like leading-edge flaps. The head is held low and extended, also adding to the impression of speed and power. His primary feathers are bent downward, almost like the wings of an SST. But unlike an aircraft, a bird can turn its head in flight to detect danger ahead. "I decided to give my bird a leftward kink," Brown goes on, "to add to the impression of reality. And I decided to have him busting out of a cornfield, because the cornstalks themselves could enhance the sense of direction."
A year and a half ago Brown set blade to basswood and the turkey began to take shape. Working from rough-cut bass heartwood blanks eight feet long and eight inches on a side, he created the turkey's hollow body out of three pieces. The long, naked head and neck took a month alone in the carving and painting. The wing butts were relatively easy—the tricky work would be in curving and angling the primaries and secondaries properly to fit the requisite shape of a bird in lift-off. Ditto the wide-fanned, down-sloping tail feathers.
While Porter roughed out, then fine tuned the big parts and the feathers, Mary, working just across the sugar-house-cum-studio from him, was doing the detail work. Using an electric "pen" called The Detailer, she burned in the barbs—the fine, flat vanes that spring from the quill of each feather. "I figure I made between 400,000 and 500,000 separate strokes of the pen to get all the barbs on one wing right," she says. Drudgery though it might seem, the setting was quite cozy. In the winter, with snow falling through the hemlocks and sugar maples surrounding the studio, and kingfishers dive-bombing the Mettawee, the soapstone-topped Garrison woodstove crackled warm along one wall, and music hummed from the stereo. Mary sipped tea as she worked, while Porter wasn't averse to an occasional bottle of Moose-head Lager, frosty from the fridge. Now and then, just for the hell of it, he would practice his knife-throwing technique—the floor around his workbench is scarred from direct hits. Six to eight hours a day they worked, undisturbed, because the word was out in Pawlet that they wanted no interruption, and slowly the turkey took shape. A visitor in the early spring, seeing the bird with the head and feet virtually complete but the body and wings still raw and unpainted, suggested that the Browns leave the bird just as it was.
"It has a strong, abstractionist look to it," he said. "It leaves the rest to the imagination. It could be some monster from outer space this way."
The Browns were not amused.
While Porter shaped the wafer-thin basswood feathers with a curling iron, Mary fretted about color and iridescence. "I have nightmares about it sometimes," she says. "...somehow the bird has broken out in polka dots!"
Few birds have so baffling a color scheme as wild turkeys, and Mary faced an artistic dilemma: how to achieve colors consistent with reality despite constantly shifting angles and light. "I used a mix of acrylics and watercolors," she says. "The watercolors allow a subtle hue, a nuance of color that other paints won't permit. But watercolors bleed when they get damp. The acrylic sets the finish, keeps it from bleeding. And I used iridescent acrylics—coppers, bronzes and golds. But my secret, which I can't tell you about, is a certain way I apply the acrylics." She laughs coyly.
The bird's primary feathers, basically dark gray-brown with striations of white, were the easiest part of the plumage. The secondaries, according to Mary, "are far more complicated. There's more of a gray raw umber to them, but variegated with different shades of gray, burnt umber, raw sienna and white. Breast and back are trickier still. At first glimpse they're a dark copper-brown, but you have to break that completely down. The magic of the bird is in the back and the wing butts—golly, you have to achieve shifts of iridescence from a silvery blue through bright yellow or orange. The tail reminds me of a Rorschach test. Is it very dark black with copper striations, or vice versa? I see it as black with copper. But believe me, I worried my way through every feather."