Monday, May 20, 2013
All that stuff that gets wasted when a house gets remodeled? It's for the birds.
Reuben J. Little with some of the birdhouses he creates in his Portland workshop. He often finds old wood and other materials from doing carpentry jobs.
Photos by Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer
No birdhouse made by Little is like another. He often uses interesting old metal pieces for the feeder hole or perch area.
WHERE TO FIND THEM
REUBEN J. LITTLE'S one-of-a-kind birdhouses usually can be found at:
• The Merchant Company, 656 Congress St., Portland. 772-8525; themerchantcompany.net
• Archipelago, 386 Main St., Rockland. 596-0701; thearchipelago.net
• Old Salts Gallery, 25 Mechanic St., Camden; oldsaltsgallery.com
Carpenter and artist Reuben J. Little has long been struck by the great old wood and other old material that he sees while working on old buildings around southern Maine.
And he has lamented how much of it gets carted away.
So a little more than a year ago, Little came up with an idea. Why not take this great wood -- with layers of old paint and a hundred or more years of history and character -- and save it from the dump by making something useful out of it?
"I like that old wood because it has history and provenance," said Little, 37, of Portland. "I like things that are mini-representations of something else, that are worlds unto themselves. It's just really neat and magical to think of a bird just digging on this piece of art."
Little's birdhouses are functional, but they function as art as well. About half his customers put the houses in their yards. The other half put them in their houses, like a painting or a sculpture.
That makes sense, because Little is an artist. He makes screen prints, posters, sculptural puppets and now birdhouses. He works as a carpenter for his day job, so building things from wood is not a stretch.
The combination of carpentry skills and artistic vision helps Little create birdhouses that really stand out.
"I loved Reuben's birdhouses when I first saw them. They're simple, functional, rustic, yet elegant. Just the right amount of paint and whimsical hardware," said Lisa Mossel Vietze, buyer/manager for Archipelago -- The Island Institute Store in Rockland, where Little's birdhouses are sold.
"I think people love that they are, first, fully functional," Vietze said. "They can be hung outside, and they're made with birds in mind, and second, they look great in any style of outdoor landscape."
So does making birdhouses as art mean that Little is a big bird watcher?
"I like birds, who doesn't? But I'm not really a backyard birder," said Little. "But I certainly get joy from watching them."
Little grew up in Thomaston, where his father worked as a prison guard and carpenter. His grandfather was a carpenter too, so working with a hammer and nails is in his blood.
He makes the birdhouses at his apartment/workshop in Portland. All are one of a kind, so they are different sizes and made with varied materials and fixtures. Because of that, there's no set price, although they generally have sold for $35 to $100.
Little gets a lot of his materials from his carpentry job. For example, he got some wood from discarded sheathing boards -- the exterior boards that shingles go on top of -- from a house he thought was about 200 years old, near the base of Munjoy Hill in Portland's East End.
But as demand for his birdhouses has grown -- he has made a 100 or so in a year -- Little has had to look to transfer stations, flea markets and other places for materials.
He likes wood that's got layers of paint or is weathered in an interesting way. For the feeder hole or perch area, he usually uses interesting pieces like a tobacco tin, automotive gears or parts from brass oil lamps.
For one of his birdhouses, Little took an old print of a scene that included a grove of trees and sealed it onto the front of the house, with the feeder hole in the middle of it. "I just thought about how neat it would be to see birds flying out of that," he said.
But Little says he really doesn't care whether people put his houses in the yard for the birds or keep them inside so they have a better bird's-eye view of the piece.
"I like it when people send me pictures of them outside, with birds flying in and out," said Little. "But for me, once I'm done with a house, I'm over it. It's theirs to enjoy."
Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:
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Some of Little's birdhouses.
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Reuben J. Little says he likes to get pictures of birds flying in and out of his birdhouses from people who’ve bought them. But he has no problem with customers buying them to put in their own houses.