by Rachel Hunter
The Gouverneur Museum will be exhibiting the bird carvings of Hazel Tyrell of Pierrepont, NY through the month of December. The collection is owned by Mary Jo Whalen of Canton and Sylvia Lake.
Hazel (McDonald) Tyrrell, also known as “The Pierrepont Birdwoman”, spent the last 22 years of her life, after retiring from the 129-acre McDonald family farm in the Cook Corners are of Pierrepont, mastering the art of carving and painting birds native to the North Country. She has been described as a “master of craftsmanship, as a woodworker in bird sculpture, the North Country has had none other just like her.” It is a testament to her skill with a common jackknife that her name is still recognized all these years after her death in 1967.
The earliest example of her work that has been identified was a Baltimore oriole, which was dated 1943 and signed later on the bottom. Other early pieces include a robin silhouette, a house wren roughly shaped from a wood block, a simply-painted bluebird on a plywood plaque, and several birds with twisted wire feet (later to become one of Hazel’s trademarks).
Hazel’s interest in bird carving started later in life after watching another Pierrepont woman who carved lawn ornaments for sale – and knew she could do something with her jackknife, which was always purchased at J.J. Newberry’s.
“At first Hazel went out and cut her own wood,” Whalen said. “The wood came from her woodlot. She would cut her own and do the whole thing. But then after a while one of the men from Canton said, “I’ll go out and cut it and it will be quicker for you.” For years she and her sister-in-law lived on the farm. They had no electricity. They were just there.”
Whalen still recalls her first visit to see Hazel Tyrrell and her birds. “She was in the country beyond nowhere,” Whalen said. “The road after you got out was a dirt road. The first time I went it was spring and she was beside the house plowing behind the horse, and she said, “This is the first time he has been out and he was pulling.” Her hands were sore.”
As a schoolteacher, Whalen said she wanted to be able to show the birds to her students. “I didn’t have too much money,” Whalen said. “I thought, “Maybe I could buy this one or maybe I could buy that one” and I did. I bought maybe five and they were $5 per piece. It wasn’t very long afterward that they were never at $5 per piece.” The desire to own more of Hazel Tyrrell’s birds did not dwindle after that purchase and Whalen continued collecting the handcrafted marvels – one bird at a time.
As Canton author Atwood Manley once put it, Hazel dressed for work and was usually “outfitted in old dungarees tucked into the top of heavy men’s work shoes, a much-patched blue denim shirt, and a tattered old Tyrolean hat perched on her head.” She worked constantly to perfect her techniques, style and repertoire.
As her birds became more popular, she would carve each piece, usually of basswood or pine, and then Hazel’s sister-in-law Dorothy would sand and oil it, and then Hazel would then paint meticulously under the rays of either a kerosene or Aladdin lamp. Her birds are almost color perfect and most are mounted as they would be found in their natural habitat all with her signature twisted wire feet.
Over the last 22 years of her life, it is estimated that Hazel carved over 6,000 birds of several dozen species. She constantly strove to get her birds “just right” and in addition to her “keen observation” of the birds in her feeders she poured over the colored plates and photos in numerous bird books. After word got out about her expertise everyone in town brought her dead birds to copy. She made patterns and kept them in an old cigar box in the barn. She worked hard to get the birds correct and most realistic tint of color and was always on the hunt for improvement.
“If there was a bird that died on somebody’ property, they would take it to her so that she could look at it, see the style and size, and the whole thing,” Whalen said. “I had a real hummingbird once. It stayed with me a month or so, and she came to my house because she wanted to see what the hummingbird really did look like. Because when you see a hummingbird, you can’t really figure that one out. So she stayed in the house over an hour.”
During her most productive years, Hazel Tyrrell created between 300 to 500 birds per year. While there are many examples of her most popular birds – like nuthatches, bluebirds, and humming birds – she also would accept commissions that became one of a kind. Whalen said that Hazel carved and painted one species at a time. “You had to wait until your order was done,” she said.
“She was always gracious,” Whalen said. I asked her, “Is there any possible way we can put a worm (in the robin’s beak) and a fish (in the kingfisher’s)?” “I don’t know,” she said. “I’ll try it.” And she did. This is the first one she did with the worm, and the first one she did with the fish with the fins out. She said, “Never going to make another one like that because I took more time and it took more skill than the whole bird.” Now after that, she made the fins so they were tight. They were just lines…”
Later in the 1960s, when she and her sister-in-law moved away from the farm they “treated themselves to electricity” but Hazel never thought the light was quite right for producing the correct colors.
“It was a different ballgame,” Whalen said. “She had always painted at night by kerosene lamps so when she had electricity, the light was different. She had a hard time trying to adjust to this. And she didn’t get as much work done because she was closer and people could drive in the winter. And many went, many went. She had people all the time.”
Hazel Tyrrell never advertised and didn’t even have a sign near her farm to attract customers. But people from all over found her and her birds, and were happy when she agreed to sell them a bird or two.
“At one time, my father was in the hospital at Ogdensburg, which was run by the nuns,” Whalen said. “This one particular one was upped from her job in obstetrics to be the head one, and her assignments of course was to visit every patient. Well, with obstetrics, that was all women. She was ringing her hands because she had to visit a man. So, the regular nurse came around… and said, “What are we going to do?” My father said, “That’s fine.” And he wanted me to bring some of the birds, so that he would be the first man that she would go to, but that there would be something to talk about. In doing that, she became very interested and asked when she and her other nun friends go and visit the lady. So in the spring, I took them and they had a wonderful time.”
Today, her birds can be found occasionally at a local auction or estate sale and it is not unusual to witness a spirited bidding war ending in a high price for one of Hazel Tyrrell’s colorful and realistic birds. Hazel lived a full life and had many friends, each of her birds is a testament to her way of life and artistic legacy.
The Gouverneur Museum at its annual open house on Saturday, December 8, 1 to 3 p.m., will host a reception for the public to greet Mary Jo Whalen and see the fine specimens of Hazel Tyrrell’s handiwork in her collection. The bird species on display will include the following: robin redbreast (with worm), woodcock, killdeer, bluebird, cardinal, chickadee, nuthatch, woodpecker, blue jay, goldfinch, cedar waxwing, grosbeak, kingfisher, and owl.
The birds that are known to stay around the North Country throughout the winter months are perched on a log display that Mary Jo Whalen’s father made specifically for the collection.
In addition to the reception, the exhibit can be viewed on Wednesdays or Saturdays, 1 to 3 p.m., during the museum’s regular hours of operation. There is no admission fee to the museum.