• CARVING CREATION

By Nancy Spitler
Photography by Ashley Jones

From a log cabin outside of Sumter, Grainger McKoy has become one of the South’s most prominent sculptors and artists. His dramatic and detailed bird sculptures have been exhibited across the country. But for McKoy, every sculpture has a backstory. And so does he.

“All I do is plagiarize.”

Grainger McKoy ’69 sums up his life’s work in this simple yet surprising sentence. After decades of carving avian sculptures that have been exhibited in museums and galleries across the country, McKoy stands by this statement: “I’ve never created anything,” he says.

“All I do is copy.”

MCKOY’S WORK IN SCUPLTURE has been compared to the painting of Audubon, birds portrayed so lifelike that when you gaze at them, you have the same feeling of wonder as when you see a covey of quail in flight. His work is so vivid that during his exhibition at the High Museum in Atlanta, he installed a sculpture of a dead bird on the floor in the corner by the window, and it was mistaken for the real thing. Fortunately, it was bolted to the floor.

Accurately representing the birds in his carvings is of utmost importance to McKoy. “I can’t misrepresent the bird,” he says. “I can’t misrepresent the creation. If I misrepresent the creation, I misrepresent the creator.”

He looks down at a carving and points out the details. “Birds have 10 primary feathers,” he says. “I can’t carve a bird with 11. Picasso could paint one with 11, but I can’t. Now I could carve one with nine,” he says with a slight smile, “because sometimes they fall out.”

Grainger McKoy holding a picture of his mother.

“AND SHE CLAPPED”

GRAINGER MCKOY GREW UP IN THE WOODS outside of Sumter, South Carolina. When everyone in the country was working to get out of log cabins, his parents were trying to build one in which to raise their three children. He treasures a picture of his mother standing in the doorway of the unfinished cabin, a look of pure joy on her face. “I was 6 years old when we moved into that cabin,” he says. The first year they lived there, there were no screens in the bedroom windows, only shutters.

When he was 9, his father died, and his mother, never one to take the traditional path, stayed in that log cabin and raised her sons. And she watched, and she listened.

“She observed us, and she fanned whatever those interests were,” says McKoy. “My older brother loved the land, and somehow she was able to muster up enough resources to buy him a tractor. And he still farms down on Edisto Island.

“My middle brother loved animals, and for Christmas or Thanksgiving or birthdays, she’d give him a goat or a pigeon or whatever. And he became a veterinarian.”

And Grainger? “I loved working with my hands, and I would draw and sketch. So she would drive me to Columbia on Saturdays, which was about an hour’s drive, to take art lessons.”

He pauses and grins. “That happened until my voice changed, and I wanted to play football. It just wasn’t cool for your mother to be driving you to Columbia to take art lessons.”

When he was small, his grandmother gave him an old duck decoy out of her attic. He wanted to carve one of his own, and he knew he needed a good piece of dry wood. His mother, ever resourceful, picked him up by his belt and let him cut off a chunk of one of the exterior cypress logs of the cabin.

“And here’s my first bird I ever carved,” he says as he cradles a carved bird, smooth and simple. His eyes are thoughtful, remembering his childhood.

“And she clapped.”

That bird went on the mantelpiece, and it is on the mantelpiece in his home today.

“Just encouragement,” he says. That’s what my parents gave us, a lot of encouragement. They didn’t try to feed something in us that wasn’t there. They just observed us and cultivated what was in us, and not what they thought ought to be there.”

Others in McKoy’s life clapped for him as well. As a teenager, he met Gilbert Maggioni, who lived in Beaufort on Lady’s Island, running an oyster cannery. McKoy describes him as “kind of a man’s man. He was a bachelor, and he loved to hunt and fish, and he bush-hogged his yard once a year. But he liked to paint, and he liked to carve, and he loved to read.” He had seen promise in some of McKoy’s art and encouraged him.

It’s an encouragement McKoy tries to pass on to others. “In Ecclesiastes 9:10, it says, ‘Whatever your hand chooses to do, do it with all your might,’” he says. “I share that with any young person who comes through here — just find that passion. So very few people find their passion, and that’s what uncles and parents and cousins, that’s what family is for, to encourage them to follow, to find their passion and to clap for them — as long as it’s legal.”

“I can’t misrepresent the creation. If I misrepresent the creation, I misrepresent the creator.”

A BUDDING PLAGIARIST

GRAINGER MCKOY LIKES TO TELL STORIES. One of his favorites is about starting first grade. He hadn’t gone to kindergarten, had no idea what to expect, and he was late — his mother was putting him in school two weeks into the school year.

The teacher introduced him to the class full of students seated at two-person desks. A red-headed boy raised his hand to beckon McKoy to the empty seat beside him, and the teacher handed McKoy paper and pencil for the assignment that the other students had already begun. Unsure of what to do, he glanced over and saw that his classmate was drawing a motorboat. So he copied that motorboat.

“The first thing I ever did in school was cheat,” he laughs.

Then he gets serious: “My life was shaped by that raised hand 63 years ago.”

That red-headed boy, he says, was Robert Marshall, who McKoy calls “my best friend of 63 years.” They would go through elementary and high school together in Sumter, and then McKoy’s mother would drive them to Clemson for their freshman year. At Clemson, they bought a 1953 Chevrolet and drove it one summer to Alaska to visit Marshall’s brother.

It was a trip of 5,300 miles from Sumter to Anchorage, and they used 53 quarts of oil.

Years later, the friends enrolled their daughters at Clemson together. Even now, the bond between them is palpable. To describe their relationship, McKoy quotes 1 Samuel 18:1: “The soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David.” He pauses, clearly moved, then continues: “and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.”

Covey Rise, 1981, by Grainger McKoy. Collection of Earl F. Slick. Photo courtesy of Grainger McKoy.

A BIGGER STAGE
WHEN MCKOY ARRIVED AT CLEMSON, he came as an architecture major. But two summers of working at an architecture firm convinced him that the actual business of architecture compared to the study of architecture really didn’t appeal to him. So he changed his major to zoology, not for the passion he had for living things, but because it didn’t require a foreign language. He spent two years in summer school, raising his GPA enough to graduate. 

When McKoy finished Clemson, Gilbert Maggioni reached out and said, “Grainger, why don’t you move down to Beaufort and try carving for six months, try for a year. I have a garage here, and you can work with me.”

That was music to McKoy’s ears. In May of 1970, he and his wife, Floride, picked up and moved to Beaufort to see if he could make a career out of carving. McKoy was so excited, he couldn’t even wait for graduation. He gave Clemson $2 to mail his diploma. Maggioni “challenged me like no one before or since,” McKoy says.

In Beaufort, McKoy and Maggioni caught the eye of Lee Loomis, who lived on Bull Island and was on the board of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. That led to an exhibit of Maggioni’s and McKoy’s bird sculptures at the museum in the spring of 1974, only four years after McKoy began to seriously pursue his carving.

Nelson Bryant, in a review in The New York Times, said, “If wooden birds could fly, those carved by Gilbert Maggioni and Grainger McKoy would be among the first to take wing.” He called the work “startlingly realistic and incredibly detailed.”

While he was in New York, McKoy was approached by the director of the prestigious Hammer Galleries on 57th Street with the offer of a one-man show. It was a heady time.

McKoy went back home and carved. And carved. “It took me 2½ years to sculpt enough for that exhibition,” he says.

He went to New York for his one-man exhibit, and it was tremendously successful. “Everything sold,” he says. “As I was crossing 57th Street after the exhibit closed with a check in my pocket, it dawned on me that all I had to look forward to for the next couple years was to again work as hard as I had been just to get back to the same spot on 57th Street … and why did that thought leave me empty?”

He went back home to Wadmalaw Island, where he and his family had moved, and drove a tractor on his brother’s farm for a few months. He had a profound visit with an old friend dying of kidney disease who was greeting death with a serene faith and then an even more profound experience when home alone reading through the Nicene Creed in the Book of Common Prayer.

“When I finished reading,” he says, “I believed.”

He says at that point he realized he had been worshipping the creation, instead of the creator: “I discovered I was dancing on such a small part of the stage, and when I discovered the creator I could look through the creation and see this bigger stage to dance on.”

“If wooden birds could fly, those carved by Gilbert Maggioni and Grainger McKoy would be among the first to take wing.”

RECOVERY STROKE

MCKOY WORKS IN WOOD, but in 1995 he moved into working with bronze and other metals. By using a vacuum-casting technique he adapted, he can produce a mold with incredible detail, not losing any of the texture and realism of the wood carving. He’s figured out how to connect the birds in his sculptures with unseen steel bands and screws that give the illusion that the feathers are merely touching each other as the birds rise into flight.

In the introduction to James Kilgo’s 1999 book, The Sculpture of Grainger McKoy, Robin Salmon, the sculpture curator at Brookgreen Gardens in Murrels Inlet, compares McKoy’s sculpture to a freeze frame of a flock of birds bursting in flight, “with one important difference: the moment is depicted with three-dimensional clarity, and it is so lifelike that your first impulse is to reach out and touch the beautiful feathers and the warm body that you know must lie beneath those feathers.”

McKoy has carved birds in flight, birds in hand, birds partially buried in the sand. He has done numerous versions of a single wing in the part of flight known as the recovery stroke.

“Now the power stroke,” McKoy says, “that’s how birds fly, but they have to go through a recovery stroke to get another power stroke. That returning wing beat is the weakest wing beat, the weakest wing position. But to me, it is the one with the most grace and beauty.”

There’s a large version of the wing in recovery stroke in the lobby of the Hollings Cancer Center and an even larger one installed at Swan Lake Iris Gardens in Sumter. This was the sculpture that McKoy suggested when the folks from the Hollings Cancer Center approached him to do a sculpture for their lobby. The recovery stroke seemed perfect: “Everybody at Hollings Cancer Center, they have to be treated. They’re in recovery. It’s a pretty weak position to be in, yet it is that very position that sometimes has the most grace and beauty in it.”

While he was sculpting that piece, he came upon the verse in 2 Corinthians 12:9, when Jesus said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” He pauses, “The world just can’t understand that because, you know, nobody wants to be caught in a weak state.”

“We’re all in recovery somewhere,” he says. “Some just disguise it better than others, either financially, spiritually, economically.” He chuckles, “You know, I’m always in recovery with my wife, so I can make up for it during birthdays and anniversaries and all that. But I can’t tell you how many opportunities I have had to share that. Somebody will come out and say, ‘Grainger, I’ve been in recovery for 10 years.’ Or ‘I have a son that’s in recovery.’ All this work becomes an opportunity. That’s the real art occurring. That’s the takeaway.”

Mourning Dove, 1982, by Grainger McKoy. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Richard P. Mellon. Photo courtesy of Grainger McKoy

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

THREE CUBIC FEET IN THE UNIVERSE

YOU COULD GET A MIGHTY BIG OPINION OF YOURSELF if you have your artwork on display in museums around the country and people commissioning you to do sculpture for them. But McKoy seems unfazed by the trappings of success. To maintain balance in his life, he became involved with a prison ministry with men who have no idea of his profession or success in the world.

As we were walking from one part of his workshop to another, we passed a rectangular frame made of PVC pipe sitting next to one of the raised beds in his yard. He points at it.

“I was wondering how much space I occupy in the universe,” he says. “I have a nephew, an orthopedic surgeon down in Charleston, and I called him up and asked him to help me answer that question. He responded, ‘Uncle Grainger, you’re 98 percent water, and a cubic foot of water weighs about 63 pounds. You occupy about 3 cubic feet in the universe.’ So I made that frame to remind me how little space I occupy. It’s a constant reminder that I’m not the center of the universe. Actually the tree next to it occupies more space than I do.

“That’s just a reminder.”