It was at his grandmother's funeral three years ago that John Bryan got his start as a sports artist. After the service, Edwina Millington, an acquaintance of Bryan's mother's, told him about the country house that she and her husband, John, were restoring. Millington is a sports-art collector and bird-shooting enthusiast, and he wanted the library to reflect those interests. "Do you think you could carve a fireplace mantel with a hunting scene?" his wife asked.
Bryan couldn't believe his ears. He had been making custom-order furniture for nine years and had only recently begun experimenting with mantel carvings. An avid hunter and fisherman, he had been looking for a way to combine his love of the outdoors with his skills as a woodworker. "I had always dreamed of doing a piece like that," Bryan says, "so I told her I was interested."
He was interested in any job at the time. Married, with one daughter and a second child on the way, Bryan was struggling financially. When he wasn't making tables, chairs or desks, he was building a house on seven acres of land he had bought in North Yarmouth, Maine. To earn an extra buck, he would do anything associated with wood, from recanvasing old canoes to making signs for the guided missile frigates the Navy built in the Bath Iron Works nearby.
One of those precious side jobs had come two years earlier from Alison Strekalovsky, who lived outside Yarmouth. She had asked Bryan to carve a mantel, something in the Adam style, with flowers, acorns and sheaves of wheat. Bryan did some sketches for his prospective client. "She told me she liked them very much," he recalls, "but when she asked if I had ever carved anything before, I said no, and a panicked look came over her face."
Still, he got the job, and his customer was thrilled with his work. "It was a major learning process," he says, "because I was exploring new territory. But I really loved doing it, and I liked her reaction."
Soon after finishing Strekalovsky's mantel, he carved another for a friend of hers, and that too received lavish praise. So when Bryan was asked to do the hunting mantel, he began to think he might be on to something. This intricate type of woodworking had been popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but it had since become something of a lost craft. Bryan thought he might be successful in reviving it.
He started carving the Millington's mantel a few months after his grandmother's funeral. It took nearly three months—some 300 hours—to complete. In the centerpiece a brace of partridge stands among plants and twigs. They are flanked by woodcock in flight, veering through alder limbs on the pilasters on either side of the mantel. When Bryan unpacked the mantel in the couple's library, Edwina blurted, "It's beautiful!" Her husband looked at the mantel for nearly a minute before speaking. "I thought I'd be getting something good," he said. "But I had no idea it would be this good."
Bryan decided to concentrate on sports and wildlife themes, and made fly-fishing the subject of his next two mantels. One is carved from cherry and has a creel and two fly rods nestled among leaves and wildflowers as its central carving. On each pilaster are water lilies, a dragonfly and stalks of cattails. The other is fashioned from pine and has been given an antique look with hand-burnished white paint. In the center a pair of Atlantic salmon hover over a gravel riverbed. Below them, classic Atlantic salmon flies have been carved and painted.
These are the only mantels Bryan has done on speculation, and though they are more expensive than his earlier creations, which ranged in price from $5,000 to $8,000, they should justify his risk. The cherry mantel, which was recently shown in a Brunswick, Maine, art gallery, is priced at $27,200. The pine mantelpiece, which is stored in Bryan's workshop, costs $14,000.
Bryan is pleased that he has found a new outlet for his skills. "My hope," he says, "is that the mood of each piece will help people recall pleasurable experiences of their own in the outdoors." And he is not limiting himself to carvings with a sports motif. His current project—one that was commissioned—is a shorescape. "I love hunting and fishing," Bryan says, "but I don't want to be stereotyped as a sporting artist." Still, if the subject is sports, he gets excited. "I'm just waiting for the day," he says, "when someone calls and mentions golf and carving in the same sentence."