|This biography from the Archives of AskART:|
|The following information, by Alvin Benn, is from the Cooperative Farming News, 2006, an Alabama farming publication:|
Jim Bird doesn't fancy himself a poor man's Picasso, but he's built quite a reputation by making hay out of hay.
His reward isn't monetary. It's the exposure he's gotten locally and around the world as a result of his hay bale architecture during the past 15 years.
Motorists driving along U.S. 43 between Demopolis and Eutaw in Alabama's mostly rural western Black Belt region do a lot of double-takes as they gaze over at Bird's pastures to see all sorts of strange critters created out of the bales.
You name it and he's probably made it or thought of making it—from a Betty Boop bale to a spider, a caterpillar, Atlanta Braves cap and even a boat "floating" above several bales that represent waves.
For a man who spent most of his farming life
The rotor blades on Jim Bird's "helicopter" came from scrap metal molded to fit at his farm.
digging wells for customers and raising cattle, hay bale art would seem to have been the last thing on his mind.
Newspapers around the state and nation have published articles about his creations and a Japanese film crew spent some time at his farm doing a mini-documentary on what he's accomplished. The National Geographic magazine also did a spread on it for children.
It began in accidental fashion when Bird's hay baler went on the fritz and started spitting out different shaped objects instead of the expected round bales. At first, he didn't know what to do with them, but eventually settled on an unusual art form.
Bird vowed not to spend more than $5 on any of his creations and has pretty much stuck to it, except for a 32-foot-tall Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz. It's not made from hay, so he can still say he hasn't exceeded his "budget." Bird estimates the Tin Man cost about $40 because of all the silver paint needed to cover it.
Two old bathtubs were used for the Tin Man's feet. The tubs didn't provide proper support at first and the big thing toppled a couple of times. He finally attached some long pieces of metal on both sides of his creation to keep it in place.
"I use what I have on hand at the farm or can find somewhere else," he said, as he conducted a tour of his "Hay Gallery" a few weeks ago. "I get an idea on what it should look like and take it from there."
Bird, 78, has devoted about 10 percent of his 1,000 acre farm in Greene County to his hay art. He gets around in a golf cart that his wife Lib also likes to use at times.
She's a former police reporter for the Birmingham News and can appreciate publicity when she sees it—especially the good kind. When stories are written about her husband's hay creations, she knows they'll be humorous, filled with appropriate puns and other good-natured references.
The couple, married for 54 years, met in the late 1940s and have become the "First Family" of this part of the county. Their farm overlooks the Tombigbee River and sits a mile from the highway.
Railroad tracks split their property and Jim Bird has some of his artwork parallel to where the trains roar by during the day.
Jutting out from a railing behind their house is an eagle creation that has a shiny old car bumper for its beak. Bird likes to take visitors there after he finishes tours of his property.
Bird's first artistic attempt involved the design of a large black cat cut from a piece of wood. It was for a Halloween party on Friday the 13th. He put the cat next to the highway and it attracted plenty of attention, along with his family's name. He has a "Bird" wood cutout atop the entrance to their property.
Bird's "studio" may not look like much, but it has all the essentials he needs for his hay sculpture.
As Bird's hay bale inventory began to grow, he placed a pail near the entrance to give viewers and visitors a chance to express their opinions. They didn't expect so many and they're still coming. "Thanks for the surprise," said David and Carolyn Clanton of Atlanta. "Your imagination is wonderful."
Don and Judy McKee of Moss Point, Miss. described what they saw as a "Gallery
Pasture" while Maryland native B. Elmore called Bird a "creative genius for thinking of doing this. I've never seen anything like it elsewhere."
Vicki Gray was so taken by what she saw that she wrote on a piece of paper: "We don't have this in England. It's great for the kids. They loved it. It's like 'Jaws.'"
Bird's first hay bale creation was the caterpillar and he made it as a surprise for Lib, who was out of town at the time. Dr. Judy Travis of Demopolis, a family friend, pitched in to make a spider. When Lib got home, she was pleased, but not all that surprised.
"It was night and I saw them when our headlights picked them up," she said. "I wasn't too surprised. Jim's just so talented. One of my favorites is Kilroy."
Her reference was to the World War II "Kilroy Was Here" character that found its way into foxholes and cockpits around the globe as GI's looked for ways to laugh during a time of turmoil for them.
Bird uses what he can find to add some spice to his bland, brownish hay bales. His "tools" includes discarded tires, bathtubs, hubcaps, pieces of wood, buckets, 55-gallon drums and whatever he can get his hands on. He uses them as eyes, ears, noses and anything else that might provide just the right touch.
Since hay is cut grass, it can fall victim to the elements, especially wind, rain and occasional snow. That causes Bird to redo his critters from time to time.
"The wind can really do a lot of damage to them," he said. "When the hay gets dry and brittle, a stiff breeze can scatter a lot of it. I did a Statue of Liberty once, but it fell apart in the wind."
His latest hay bale creation is a triple feature—monkeys representing Hear No Evil, See No Evil and Speak No Evil. He placed them side-by-side near a helicopter he put together several months ago. Metal from an old weather vane was used for the chopper's rotor blades.
His boat-riding-the-bale-waves resulted from a problem one of his friends had. Seems his buddy had lost his lease at a local marina and didn't know what to do with his boat. Bird had an idea and it led to his "wavy" creation.
The well drilling business has pretty much dried up with extension of water lines in rural areas, so cattle remain Bird's main occupation. As he putt-putts around his property, his bulls and brood cows stare at him—no doubt wondering what in the world he's going to create next in the big field along Highway 43.
Lib adds her two cents now and then on her husband's next project. When she saw a large log near the river, she told him: "That ought to be a cannon." Her suggestion led to a hay bale tank topped by an American flag made out of a large piece of metal and, or course, the big gun which was created from the log.
In early January, he attracted even more attention when he came up with his own version of Snoopy. The popular "Peanuts" pooch is best known for climbing atop his white doghouse and taking off to meet his perennial enemy—the evil "Red Baron"— for one more aerial shootout.
Snoopy can be seen crashing into a tree on the southern end of Bird's hay gallery. Anyone who follows the comic strip or watches the cartoon on television can tell immediately that Bird has made an unintentional mistake of epic proportions.
Instead of sitting atop his doghouse, Snoopy is flying the "Red Baron's" plane, complete with German insignia on the side and tail.
"I didn't know that," said Bird, when informed that he had Snoopy in the wrong aircraft. "I don't read the comic strip very much."
It probably won't be long before he takes Snoopy out of the "Red Baron's" plane and puts him where he belongs.
It'll be a good way for Bird to get "out of the doghouse" with Snoopy devotees. And, it won't be surprising if he winds up creating a "dog"-fight several feet above his property.??Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.
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