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Octogenarian has second career carving birds

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

GLENVILLE -- Claude Kemper's fascination with carving started early.

"I got my first pocket knife when I was 5 years of age," said Kemper, who this month dedicated a complete collection of his Birds of My Hollow hand-carvings to Glenville State College.

"The pocket knife became a part of my hand, I used it so much."

Now 89, Kemper's skill with these simple blades has become such that he has five years of requests piled up.

"The demand is more than I can satisfy," said Kemper, who has already completed more than 5,000 birds and now does about 70 per year. Some of those will be on sale during the Stonewall Jackson Heritage Arts and Crafts Jubilee next weekend in Lewis County.

Kemper started carving the basswood figures, which are generally smaller than life size, in the 1970s after retiring from a career with the West Virginia University Extension Service.

"I knew what I really wanted to do is develop a hobby that had some meaning," he said.

After dabbling in making jewelry and ceramics, Kemper returned to wood carving and an art subject that had interested him since early childhood.

"Living up a hollow, we didn't see too many people and had to make our own entertainment," said Kemper, who now spends the bulk of his year in Florida. "For eight or nine years in childhood, my sister and I spent every spring and summer seeing how many bird nests we could peek into.

"(When I started carving), I decided that I'd only carve the birds that lived in my hollow with me as a boy.

"I don't really have a favorite," he said of the nearly 50 species for which he has developed patterns. "I have two or three that I especially like, such as the American Redstart."

Using field guides, Kemper taught himself to paint on the intricate details of species ranging from blue jays to Eastern bluebirds to bobwhites to ruffed grouse. Copper legs are sunk deep into driftwood that family members gather from the shores of local lakes.

But, Kemper said, don't expect to see any red-tailed hawks with his detailed acrylics on them.

"I have watched a hawk fly in and grab a young chicken and fly off with it. They were our enemy."

For the college's part, President Thomas Powell said he's delighted to have the collection on campus, which is where Kemper and his late wife Ethel met in the 1930s.

"This collection of his extraordinary carvings is truly unique and a treasured asset for the enjoyment and education of all students and visitors," Powell said in a faxed statement.

The Glenville collection, one of only 11 complete Birds of My Hollow sets, is housed on the second floor of the Robert F. Kidd Library, in the Claude and Ethel Kemper Room. The permanent display also includes an original grouping of 10 sunny-hued birds called Feathers of Yellow.

The display open to the public during regular library hours.

Regional Editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1403.

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