Retired professor creates intricate wood carvings

Sunday, August 15, 2004

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Horticulture is the art or science of growing flowers, fruits, vegetables and shrubs.

Floyd Giles of Champaign has been there and done that.

"I used to be a horticulturist, but I don't work in the yard much anymore," he said.

Instead, he sits in his workroom on the lower level of his home -- with his back yard at eye level -- painstakingly recreating all the plants and bugs in wood carvings.

The leaves are veined and bent, rose stems have tiny thorns and every spider has exactly eight legs made out of nearly hair-thin wood.

After Giles carved all the flora and fauna in his yard, for further inspiration he turned to the botanical drawings he had done over the years. Pulling out a stack of manila folders, he showed detailed pencil and ink drawings he made to illustrate dozens of horticulture volumes and textbooks that he and others wrote. He figured he ended up illustrating nearly every plant that grows wild in Illinois and quite a few that grow elsewhere.

Giles is a University of Illinois professor emeritus who retired in 1999. That's when he started carving wood.

"I was retiring and my wife didn't want me sitting around looking at her," Giles said, laughing. "The hobby keeps me out of trouble."

Giles is both self-taught and taught by other carvers who belong to the Illinois Carvers Club in Champaign and the Kickapoo Carvers in Danville.

Giles' first projects were what carvers call "whittle sticks," 1-by-1-inch sticks with profiles drawn on one flat side and then carved in profile. He moved on to geese, dogs, bears and shoes.

But Giles rapidly progressed to the more realistic nature carvings because "I had the ability to see these things and draw them," he said. "Most people can't see it before they carve it."

The first model he makes of any plant is a keeper.

"Carvers call them a 'go by,"' he explained. "That way I don't have to figure out the measurements all over again."

His flowers are their actual size, or "a tad bigger" in most cases.

"I call them artistic copies, not realistic copies," Giles said.

His favorite is an English blue daisy creation.

Roses he carved last year won the first-place People's Choice award at the fall Kickapoo Carvers annual show.

In wood, he has recreated wild Shasta daisies, black-eyed Susans, cone flowers, thistles, blackberry plants, witch hazel, cacti and magnolias. The magnolias take the most time to carve.

"I have to scoop out the wood so each petal curves, and I like to get them thin enough that you can see light shining through," Giles explained.

Every plant gets its own carved bug, or perhaps a hummingbird.

"I guess you'd call that the fauna," Giles said.

He has realistic-looking ants, wasps, grasshoppers and lady bugs lined up on his windowsill and workbench, waiting for plant habitats. A butterfly has striped wings made out of native cedar wood.

The tiny legs and antennae are made from split popsicle sticks strengthened with coatings of super glue.

"People ask why I don't paint them," Giles said. "I like wood. If you want plaster of Paris, go down to Wal-Mart and buy it. Painting wood doesn't appeal to my sensibilities."

The only carved figures he makes that get painted are his 6- to 12-inch Santa Clauses.

"Santa are a thing in themselves," he said. "We use them for Christmas decorations. My wife and mother-in-law paint them."

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