With remarkable dedication to detail and defiant disregard for the laws of gravity, Grainger McKoy’s sculptures capture the essence and livelihood of birds, their movements, struggles, elegance, and fragility. But for this humble Lowcountry artist, his deeply realistic work is a conduit, a means to expose the authenticity of life—its relationships, trials, and lasting spiritual significance.
Sumter—or Sum-tah, if you know how to say it right—is on the cusp of the Carolina lowlands, a good two-hour trip from the Upstate foothills. But today it’s well worth the drive, especially for a chance to glimpse the studio of world-renowned bird sculptor Grainger McKoy. His exhibition legacy spans from the High in Atlanta to New York’s American Museum of Natural History, and most recently the Greenville County Museum of Art, where I encountered his Recovery Stroke. I say “encountered,” but in truth I was rendered speechless by the astoundingly accurate wooden replica of a pintail duck wing, towering an impressive 12 feet. Each feather had been individually carved with meticulous devotion, then ingeniously attached to the wing structure—forming a creation that extends gracefulness. It’s exquisite.
After barreling down a gravel back road encased by Lowcountry forest, I pull into a drive shaded with oak and moss. A stately white house and wide front porch stand in friendly welcome, which I later discover were built in 1800. Grainger steps out of his workshop and greets me with a kind smile. Dressed in full khaki, he’s all warmth and Southern charm, and his strong brow mirrors the intensity with which he approaches his art. His hands, too, are powerful, and after fifty years under knife and wood, he’s earned the right to lay aside his work gloves. But one glance at his studio space and it’s obvious Mr. McKoy is nowhere near retirement. Blocks of basswood scatter left and right, dozens of chisels line the walls, and a band saw looms center stage, a wooden wing lying half-finished next to the blade.
Fowl Play // Bird carving has not always been considered an art form, and often stems from the hunting realm of creating decoys, in which wildfowl replicas are carved to entice birds to land nearby and within range of the hidden hunter. Gilbert Maggioni’s work began in this arena, but he and Grainger’s creations soon exceeded advanced decoy standards. Their fantastically detailed work replicated more than the bird’s anatomy. With new techniques, they managed to recreate environments and reflect bird behavior.
But it’s not the life-like duck depictions soaring across a white canvas or the mourning doves bronzed in elegant flight that strike me the most. It’s the boots. A hodgepodge of boat shoes and Bean boots are slung across a dusty beam in the left corner, twenty or so pairs hanging in forlorn glory, held up by lace and string.
“They’re all the shoes I’ve worn since being a Christian,” McKoy explains when I ask. “I have to remind myself it’s not where you’ve been that matters. What matters is where you’re going.”
As he tells me about his life, I quickly realize this artistic genius is chock-full of proverbial statements. Raised in Sumter, Grainger fondly remembers his parents as the “original hippies.” He hands over a black-and-white photograph of a vibrant young woman dressed in her Sunday best with a log cabin behind her, the home his father built, and tells me of how when he was thirteen his mother helped him saw off part of that cabin—her pride and joy—so he could carve his first bird. It was a shorebird, and coupled with a love of nature and fascination with three-dimensionality, it sparked a hidden gift, a unique ability to shape wood. This led Grainger to Clemson University’s architectural department, but disliking the business of the trade, he switched to zoology. By this time, his extraordinarily precise carvings had caught the eye of bird sculptor Gilbert Maggioni, a Beaufort-based oysterman in his mid-40s who created intricate decoys on the side. After marrying high school sweetheart Floride and graduating from Clemson, Grainger headed to Beaufort to study under Maggioni.
For Grainger this became a pivotal season in his life, and not just in the realm of artistic development. His apprenticeship with Maggioni required long workdays, often at the expense of time with his wife and children. But his art was transforming. It became less about replicating birds and more about communicating their essence, their behavior and movement. Regionally his pieces took flight—his Red-Shouldered Hawks and Copperhead Snake is a fantastical balancing act featuring two raptors grappling over a snake—and it wasn’t long before a few chance connections landed him and Maggioni an exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
“Floride and I have to pinch ourselves when we look back on how we made it,” Grainger says. “What that did was take us out of our South Carolina art culture, or took us away from decoys, and it parachuted us into an art world which gave the work credibility.”
But as his art career was flourishing, his conscience was churning. In 1976, Grainger landed another prominent exhibit in New York, this time at Hammer Galleries. He sold every sculpture—a significant feat for a young artist—but instead of enjoying his success, Grainger was left questioning his life. During this time, he visited a high school friend dying from a failed kidney transplant. Though frail, his friend was exuberant, professing to Grainger his belief in God and how it gave him hope beyond death and hope for Grainger’s life as well. Dumbfounded, Grainger couldn’t comprehend this spiritual paradox. His friend was dying and yet overflowing with hope, and here he was at the pinnacle of success and yet feeling empty. It wasn’t long after his friend passed away that Grainger came to faith.
As I pull out of the drive, I leave with something inexplicable stirring inside. I can’t help but think that like his freeze-frame representations of birds, Grainger captures people in moments, as well. Perhaps like his Covey Rise they’re in flight, or struggling like his Three Green Herons, or maybe in a season of rehabilitation like Recovery Stroke. Wherever they happen to be in their journey, Grainger meets them where they are and offers hope.
“It saved my marriage and changed my life,” Grainger explains with conviction. “You see the greatest art in the world is a changed heart. It’s when somebody’s walking this way and something happens internally.”
Grainger stands up and walks to his desk, which is cluttered with a smorgasbord of tools, bird books, feathers, and wooden maquettes, all sprinkled with a fine layer of sawdust. He grabs a small block of wood and holds it out, running his hand over the grain.
“All I do is change the surface of a material to make it look like it’s something it’s not,” he explains. “Only thing I do is surface treatment. True art is internal treatment, something that changes inside. You can pull one of my feathers out, and it will not grow back . . . you pull one of God’s feathers out, it has some embryonic tissue in there it triggers. It will grow another one right out.”
This awe for creation’s complexity inspires Grainger’s incredible attention to accuracy and detail; he feels it’s his responsibility to represent them well. The precision is palpable in all his work, and in the years following his conversion, Grainger fashioned numerable multi-dimensional, multi-bird creations. Influenced by hunting excursions, his Covey Rise depicts an upsurge of 13 bobwhite quail caught in a moment of startled flight. And then there’s the Carolina Parakeets, a challenging representation considering the limited reference material. In order to maintain ornithological accuracy, Grainger keeps dead birds in a freezer to study. The ones he can’t shoot himself, he receives from The Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw, South Carolina. The Carolina parakeet, however, has been extinct for a hundred years, and he relied heavily on the observations of the 1800s ornithologist Alexander Wilson to complete it.
After mastering his skill in wooden sculpture, Grainger turned to metal as a medium. He discovered a foundry capable of casting his wood creations in bronze, an intricate technique involving waxes and long molding periods. An entirely new artistic process was uncovered for the artist, and he was able to explore older pieces with different material. He even developed a way to cast jewelry, which his wife Floride sold out of the back of her car until it transformed into an entire jewelry line run by their son and daughter-in-law.
“I just followed the passion,” Grainger explains humbly. “I’d encourage anybody to follow a passion. Very few people find it.”
Floride now joins us in the studio, and she shows me a pair of earrings she’s wearing from the Grainger McKoy Collection—beautifully detailed gold feathers molded into hoops. Floride is the perfect match to Grainger’s animated personality. She sat in front of Grainger in the third grade, and while he was at Clemson, she earned a degree in modern languages from Converse College. Also an organist, Floride speaks several languages and is all thoughtfulness and consideration. When I ask her the secret behind Grainger’s gravity-defying masterpieces, she pauses for a second to think.
“He used to say helium,” she says with a smile. “The secret is that at those contact points, it’s metal. There’s an armature of metal running through there. And he can detail the metal so it looks just like the wooden feathers.”
If there is a metal rod in there, I certainly can’t find it. At Grainger’s Greenville County Museum of Art exhibit, I spent ten minutes scrutinizing his Three Green Herons, inspecting for any sign of support amidst the flapping wings, talons, and beaks. On relating my amazement to Floride, she responds with graciousness, her humility matched only by her husband’s. Together they have three children and four grandchildren, all within a day’s drive of the McKoys’ gorgeous homestead in Sumter. Both are active at church, and Grainger volunteers with a prison ministry, working and developing relationships with local inmates.
After a tour of the grounds, including a visit with Grainger’s English setter and her newborn puppies, my host walks me back to my car. Floride comes out to say goodbye with a wrapped barbecue sandwich in hand, which she places on my passenger seat with the full kindness of a hospitable heart. I turn to Grainger for one last question—of one hundred-plus sculptures across fifty years of artistry, which piece of work is his favorite?
“The next one,” he says without hesitation, and helps me into my car. He and Floride wave me off as I pull out of the drive, and I leave with something inexplicable stirring inside. I can’t help but think that like his freeze-frame representations of birds, Grainger captures people in moments, as well. Perhaps like his Covey Rise they’re in flight, or struggling like his Three Green Herons, or maybe in a season of rehabilitation like Recovery Stroke. Wherever they happen to be in their journey, Grainger meets them where they are and offers hope. It reminds me of something he said about a bird’s recovery stroke, how in that position a bird is at its weakest and most vulnerable, and yet a beauty and grace is uncovered there that’s found nowhere else.
“Everyone is in recovery at some point in their lives,” I recall him explaining. “You have to be real, you have to be authentic. That’s what I want to be with my birds.”
Grainger McKoy’s sculptures, including wood maquettes explaining his creation process, are on display at the Greenville County Museum of Art through August 27, 2017. An opportunity to meet the artist will take place at GCMA on Sunday, October 16, at 2 p.m.