Ken Beerbohm always wanted to be an artist.
With a visit to the large basement studio in his Long Reach home, filled with dozens of intricate and undoubtedly unique clay and wire sculptures, it would be easy for any art lover to believe he’s been one for the majority of his 64 years.
But art is funny that way; it can often be deceiving.
The smattering of fantastical birds that surround Beerbohm in his impeccably organized studio is actually the bulk of the retiree’s first collection.
The collection, called Odd Birds, was selected to headline the New Member Show at the Artists’ Gallery in Columbia in June and July.
Beerbohm and his wife, Kathi, came to Columbia from San Francisco two years ago, and like many who enter into retirement, Beerbohm chose to devote his newfound time to the art that practicality forced him to largely ignore during his working years.
Since he was a child, Beerbohm excelled at the creative -- lacking, he says, the skills necessary to ace his core subjects.
“As a little kid I’d love to take my whittling knife out, and I’d make little sculptures for my mother,” says Beerbohm, who has no formal artistic training. “I did terrible in high school. ... But whenever it came to making something or doing something with my hands, I excelled.”
Although he wanted to be an artist, Beerbohm says it was prudence -- as a husband and father of two children -- that led him to use his design and industry degree to start his own plastics company, specializing in products for the electronics field.
His job experience has helped him differentiate himself from many professionally trained artists. Many of the products he uses are only available in hardware stores and not commonly applied to artwork.
“For 23 years, people would bring me a drawing and say ‘We need you to make this work,’ and I would just have to figure it out,” Beerbohm recalls.
And it turns out his lack of training didn’t matter when the Artists’ Gallery selected Beerbohm’s collection.
Though comparing his body of work to that of other artists can be intimidating, Beerbohm says he relies on what he knows -- much of his technique is the result of trial and error.
“I don’t need to go to a class or anything, because I’m winging it,” he says.
The beauty of Beerbohm’s birds is in their oddity. Most have thick, round middles, spindly legs and small clipped wings.
Beerbohm says one of his favorite things about creating the sculptures is figuring out how to get the birds’ thin legs to hold their heavy clay bodies.
“I like the uniqueness, and I like the technical difficulty of it,” he says.
Beerbohm’s birds, he explains, can’t fly and thus use modes of transportation. One bird sits on an old-fashioned bicycle, another flies a vintage-style airplane and another climbs a ladder to get to the top of a tree.
Although it took him a while to settle on the bird theme, Beerbohm knew from the start that he wanted his work to be playful and humorous.
“I didn’t get anything out of doing serious stuff,” he says. “When I started showing the birds to people -- friends and neighbors -- they would always smile and laugh and I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do -- make people smile.’ ”
Kathi, his wife, says that crafting the Odd Birds collection -- each piece took between 30 and 50 hours to complete -- has allowed her husband to explore the contours of his artistry.
“I’ve seen him blossom with this,” she says. “They’re so amazing, the creatures he comes up with. ... They just keep emerging like they were meant to have a place in this world.”
Beerbohm, whose studio is lined with photos of birds, says he gets much of his inspiration from wildlife photography. When the weather is nice, he ventures out to the woods three to four times a week and takes pictures of birds.
But the birds in his photos have little in common with his sculptures. Somewhere in his creative process they develop personalities, quirks. Beerbohm calls the birds “prehistoric,” but he says their most arresting feature is their utter uniqueness.
“That’s the part I like best,” he says. “I haven’t seen anything like this out there anywhere.”
Some of Beerbohm’s work is exhibited at The ClayGround Studio and Gallery at Savage Mill, including a new line of birds he calls Stone Perchers. He will participate in the Artfully Wilde Fine Arts & Craft Show at Slayton House in Columbia in November.