Even as the crow flies, it’s a long way between the Chrysler automotive design studio in the Detroit area and Newberry, in the Upper Peninsula. But that’s the route Michael Van Houzen chose in 1976 when, after losing his styling job, he headed to the U.P. and turned his talent to becoming a wildlife artist. Countless hand-carved feathers later, he continues to create Songbirds of Wood from his home studio, now in Holland.
Van Houzen learned woodworking from his father, whose hobby was carving duck decoys. They crafted birdhouses, fish and even totem poles in the workshop of their home on Detroit’s east side. The artist, who earned his bachelor of fine arts degree from Eastern Michigan University, discovered that he enjoyed studying and sculpting songbirds. He added shorebirds and seabirds to his repertoire when he and his wife Mary Ann, who assists him with the company’s business side, became snowbirds by spending winters in Florida.
Each bird takes Van Houzen about three days to hand-sculpt of basswood, detail with a wood burning pen, and paint with acrylics. By adding leaves, flowers and berries, “It becomes a composition,” he explains. “I try to be unique in the way I mount the birds.” The realistic pieces do have a following, as one collector owns 90 of his songbirds.
Van Houzen, who shows his work at art fairs and wildlife festivals in both states, creates a mix of well-known and more unusual birds. “For the art shows I have to have wrens, nuthatches, chickadees and cardinals, but what I like to do are the odd birds.
I do a slew of different warblers for birding festivals.” The sculptures cost hundreds of dollars—a pair of Northern Cardinals sold for $1,500—but he also carves miniatures that are cast in resin, hand-painted and crafted into $25 lapel pins. While most of his birds are life-size, for practical reasons he scales down larger species, like the blue heron.
“Not many people want a bird that size taking up that much space in their living room,” he laughs.