Written by Dagmar Fors Karppi Friday, 05 February 2010 00:00
Oyster Bay has a very special treasure in Pierre Brandt, wood carver extraordinaire. You may have seen his work during December when he was installed in a corner of Dodds & Eder, displaying and demonstrating his wood-carving techniques. He has set up his corner with his carvings on display for the past seven years.
Watching him work, he demonstrated the block of wood on which he draws the initial outline of the bird in profile. He carves away the wood sometimes checking with his reference books to perfect the image. He carves the feathers, paints the beaks, adds legs and creates stands and display mounts for the birds. He also does larger animals – wolves and deer. Each is an original, as is Mr. Brandt.
Pierre Brandt announced this year that he plans to retire from his wood-carving career. Dottie Simons of Dodds & Eder alerted the press. It will be the second time he is retiring.
Mr. Brandt worked for many years for Powers Chemco in Glen Cove. He retired in 1998. Mr. Brandt was the supervisor of maintenance for the company, now known as Konica. “I was in charge of all building repairs, tooling, and building machinery. I hired the contractors when roof work was needed,” he said.
Born in France, he came here as a welder. Mr. Brandt said it took him a year to get all the paperwork ready for him to come to the United States. He had to have a job and a profession to come here in those days. He had to send police records; Army records, all kinds of records to gain entrance to this country. His Uncle Edmund Brandt found him a job at Powers Chemco as a welder, doing repairs.
Pierre has vivid memories of growing up in France during World War II. He was 16, and worked on a farm on the Swiss border. “I had two oxen and a lady had two oxen and she asked if I would work with her. She was living between France and Switzerland. I was to get logs in Switzerland and bring them back to the lumber yard.
“The woods were filled with about 3,000 people in the Underground, the Maquis (The Resistance of Southern France), hiding from the Germans. It was in the area between two forts, Fort De La Monde and Fort De Roche. The French built the forts in 1915. He said arms and goods were flown in by America and dropped in cotton parachutes that carried food but mostly arms and ammunition for the Maquis. Nylon parachutes were only used by the soldiers,” he explained.
His job, as a 15/16-year-old was to use the oxen to transport the parachuted items to where they were needed, he said.
Seated in Dodds & Eder, on a cold December day, Mr. Brandt was wearing a red flannel shirt. “I’ve never had a cold. I went to school in short pants. My legs would turn blue,” he said. He was born in Franche Comte area near the Swiss border: near Swiss Alsace and Verdun. Although he was near Switzerland, known for their wood-carving, as are the Germans, he didn’t begin his avocation until after he retired. He and his wife visited Saint Jean Beau Joleaux, Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, Quebec the capitol of artisan art in Quebec. “My wife bought me a carving,” he said. It signified the meaning of his family name of German origin. “The name Brandt means the one who creates the wood for the lamps or the fire. The carving was of a man with his foot on a log, cutting the wood and clearing the land. I love it,” he said.
Inspired by the carving, he tried his hand at it but was unsatisfied with the results. Then he began to research the craft. “I bought a bunch of books and little by little I learned how to carve. There are good books and they have plans for carving. I didn’t know I could do it before I tried. I hope a lot of young people will pick up the tradition,” he said.
He only does animals – no people. And although he has two antique duck decoys on display, he doesn’t hunt. “I’ve been an animal-lover always and I always will be,” he said.
Each carving has a story. He said he spotted a tree with a limb that needed removing and that set his imagination off. He asked his nephew to use a chain saw to get at the wood. He turned it into a mother bird with her chick. If you look at the back side of the work, it still looks like a piece of the tree – in its natural state – with nothing added.
He held up another bird, this one with its wings spread out. They are made of Walnut that he got from Larry Schmidlapp, now the mayor of Centre Island. He attached the wings to the bird body and carved them but left the wood natural. “It would be a shame to varnish it,” he said.
Mr. Brandt plans the display stands for the birds. For one of them he has added crushed corn cob to create the texture.
“I was a member of the Long Island Wood Carvers Association and used to attend their meetings. They are a nice bunch of guys. I don’t drive at night anymore, so I don’t go now,” he said.
Dorothy Simons, Dodds & Eder manager, said, “People come to see him every year. The children and the ladies are crazy for him. In October, they start asking for him saying, ‘where’s my friend with the pretty birds. I own three myself. It’s a craft you don’t often see. And, he whistles like any bird in a tree. He’s a champion whistler – we can hear him around the corner. He’s also a gardener. So many people enjoy his company – women and children and men customers because they understand the craft.”
“It’s a good place to work here in the store. It is a family,” said Pierre. “He’s our treasure,” said Dottie. He has many collectors and the pieces are all signed. If you would like to purchase one please contact Ms. Simons at Dodds & Eder at 922-4412 and she will contact Mr. Brandt.
One of the carvings is of his own bird, a white cockatiel, named Jackie after one of his granddaughters. He had a second one, named for his granddaughter Lauren, “But she flew the coop,” he said.
He had taken the bird outside to show a friend and she took off. “It used to talk and made a wolf whistle. When I said ‘Kiss Papi’ it would give me a kiss. I don’t even know if it lived. It didn’t know how to find food,” he said.
Mr. Brandt also raises Red Factor Canaries as a hobby. Most go to friends, although he sells some.
While chatting, Mr. Brandt picked up a bird he is working on and used a wood-burning iron to put in some feather details on a bird. “A pen can’t do that,” he said.
He has a large assortment of tools to create the birds, as well as an assortment of eyes. They sell by the dozen and each pair comes on a wire. The glass beads are correctly colored or he said, you can paint them yourself.
Some time ago he taught wood carving at Oyster Bay High School in one of art teacher Alice Sprintzen’s classes. For about two months he came twice a week to work with the students. They were making doves that were to go on the Carousel at the Riverhead aquarium. They were supposed to be put on a beam around the roof to look as if they were resting there. He hoped they sent them to Riverhead. Mr. Brandt has won a few blue ribbons for his work, when he has exhibited them.
His welding expertise has been a help in his carving. “I made ankles of the birds in copper and silver,” he said. He held up a Laughing Gull he was working on. “It’s beak is wide open and his tongue hangs out as he laughs – ya, ya, ya,” said Mr. Brandt. Another carving he is working on is a wolf chasing a leaping deer. He will make the antlers out of copper.
Obviously he still has a lot of carving ahead of him.
The Brandts have a daughter, Regina Brandt Rettig, and a son Pierre. Regina has a daughter, Lauren, and Pierre a son Paul and a daughter, Jacqueline. Sunday afternoon, Dec. 20 Lauren was scheduled to come and paint one of the birds her grandfather carved, but bad weather that day kept her away. “She is an artist, 20, and in college. The bird is an American Avocet, a gray and bronze shore bird. Like the Curlew,” he said.
There were four brothers in the Brandt family: Pierre, the eldest; Henri (deceased), Jean and Paul. With his father having died, Pierre said, “I tried to be the father.”
As we chatted, Jeanette Cucci arrived with two giant oyster shells to give to Pierre. “They were given to me by the clammers. The clammers are hard-working men,” she said. Pierre uses the shells for posing the birds in their habitat – on top of the shells, she said.