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Harold Gibbs

Harold Gibbs: Great Horned Owl by Harold Gibbs

Great Horned Owl by Harold Gibbs

American

1886 - 1970

The first miniature birds Harold Gibbs carved were for his young daughter to play with in the bathtub, but she admired them so much that instead of using them as toys, she carefully stored and displayed them. Soon Gibbs was carving versions for friends and neighbors who also valued his artistic and elegant yet precisely accurate miniatures.

Gibbs, born in 1886, spent his childhood fishing, hunting and boating in Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay. After graduating high school he worked at a variety of jobs before being hired as a watchman for Warren Oyster Company, overseeing local oyster beds. Curious by nature, he began an independent study of the oysters he was charged to protect, soon realizing the devastating effect pollution had on the oyster and other regional shellfish populations. His lifelong body of research was widely respected throughout the marine biology community, which acknowledged him as an expert on fish and crustaceans despite his having only a high school diploma. From 1939 to 1946 he served as the Rhode Island Administrator of Fish and Game; during his tenure he advocated for stricter pollution legislation as well as other conservationist causes.

Some of Gibbs' earliest carvings, from 1937 and 1938, were probably done in the quiet hours of tending the oyster beds. He is believed to have first made decoys for his own hunting use, but it is the miniatures, so beloved by his daughter, for which he is now known. Although his early focus was on ducks, geese and shorebirds, he also "whittled" (a term he preferred over "carved") upland game and birds of prey. The bluebird and mourning dove presented here are two of his rare forays into songbird miniatures. Many of his birds are posed in a characteristic "reaching" position and he typically fashioned their legs from wood, one if not the only miniature bird carver to do so. The driftwood he used for bases was harvested from logs uncovered during low tide in the Barrington River.

Of note, Gibbs was also an avid sports fisherman who helped pioneer saltwater fly-fishing. He invented a number of flies including one still used today that bears his name: the "Gibbs striper fly". He died in 1970 with a well-deserved reputation as an expert marine biologist, passionate environmentalist and talented artist.

Sources:

University of Rhode Island Library Special Collections and Archives Unit

Birds in Wood and Paint by Joseph H. Ellis

 

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