Pender-based master bird carver’s career soars

November 23, 2015

A multi-talented person has the energy of a many coloured burst from a fire cracker.

I always love it when I stumble across a ‘famous’ person especially when it is unexpected. When it turns out that person has been famous for more than one thing, I enjoy the meeting even more.

The following is an article about one of the most extraordinary wood carvers alive as far as I am concerned (and living on the west coast of Canada I have experienced the awe that comes along with viewing the work of many, many excellent carvers).

I knew, of course, that I was going to meet Steve Madsen as I set out to go to his house to interview him on Pender Island. I did not realize, though, until I started talking with him that he had already been famous in a completely different career.

Read on:

Gulf Islands Driftwood

August 2, 2000

Pender-based master bird carver’s career soars

by Tanya Lester

It could be easy to mistake Steve Madsen for being a regular guy.

He lives with his wife and two small children on North Pender. He volunteers on the fire department. He plays in a local bank called Thin Ice. He likes bird watching and he is a pilot.

It could be easy to mistake Madsen for being a regular guy if your do not see the streak of individuality in each of us.

Madsen does. Observing birds has made him realize that each has its own individuality that makes it unique in its species.

Madsen has a couple of things that make him unique in the human species. He is a world famous bird carver, for one.

He’s so famous that wealthy people spend thousands of dollars buying his work. Billionaire Bill Gates, for one.

The richest man in the world has a Madsen carving of an eagle preening itself in his Washington State mansion.

Another carving owner is really not so rich at all but as a Hell’s Angel motorbike-head is — how would you put it? — influential in his own right  in certain circles. Right now, you might be saying to yourself: he makes a lot of money from carving birds. So, is he any good?

The short answer is: yes.

He has been told that his rating as a bird carver is in the top two per cent world-wide.

The secret to Madsen’s success (to borrow a highly overused expression) is that he meticulously carves every aspect of his wooden birds, down to each individual feather, to concisely duplicated the live version.

This is why it will take Madsen over a year to complete the first-ever carving of a peacock down to every last “eye” in its magnificent tail plumage.

It can take one day for Madsen to carve one tail feather out of the tupelo wood imported from Louisana.

So you might say the secret to his success is patience. Yet it is more than that.

Madsen has replicated the preening eagle that adds to the ambiance of the Microsoft giant’s north-west American home in a pose seldom seen duplicated in bird carvings.

Other works include a kingfisher surfacing up from the water with a fish in its bill, a heron and turtle in an antagonistic stand-off, and a pelican perched with a shadow of a seagull in the water next to it.

These are slices of bird life captured by Madsen as a result of his keen observation skills.

Another important skill that Madsen does well is research.

He volunteered at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria where he categorized bird anatomies. This is how he learned about the shape of birds’ feathers, their skulls and even such minute details as how the nasal tract runs up the back of a bird’s throat.

This is what judges at carving competitions look for. This is why Madsen’s carvings win a lot of ribbons (enough to wallpaper a small room if he so chose). This is why he gets the big bucks from rich people, including lots of movie stars.

Then, there are the “Goonie birds” that sell for $150 a piece . Now we are back in the Hells’- Angels-boss-price-range.

Madsen commissioned a caricature bird for him. Other Goonie birds include a roadrunner done for a stockbroker, a loon dressed as a fisherman and another as a Mountie, a puffin with a “no puffin’ allowed” sign for use in a no-smoking bar, penguins as beach bums and even a shark for one of Madsen’s lawyer friends.

Why would someone who can make thousands of dollars from his “serious” carvings get into selling Goonie Birds for under $200 ?

“It got out of hands,” said Madsen, who at first started the Goonie line so his work could be more affordable to people who do not have a lot of money.

He still gets about five calls a month from people who want to commission a Goonie and Madsen has become good at saying no because he does not want to get side-tracked from his peacock carving.

Research for this major project takes Madsen to a peacock farm. It is there that he saw a peacock sitting in an apple tree and decided that he wanted his carved peacock to be perched on a branch.

On its tail will be a winter wren which Madsen describes as a small aggressive bird but “really brave like your basic teenager.” The carving will be called David and Goliath.

The Hathaway family, the Oregon hotel and casino owners who commissioned the carving, agreed with Madsen’s idea. The piece is 80 inches in length and stands close to six feet hight — high enough so the peacock’s eyes looked straight into mine when I got up close to it where it sits, a work-in-progress, in Madsen’s basement studio.

“The face is what makes it alive,” Madsen agreed. He said once the face of the bird he is carving is done right then everything falls into place.

Yet it is difficult for him to articulate why things come together for him so well. “It’s hard to explain,” he said. “I carve what I see.”

This is what any good artist does, of course, yet Madsen finds he cannot teach this when he works with students.

“I cannot teach them to perceive like I do,” he said.

Before he takes his power carving tools to wood, Madsen, who admits that he cannot draw, usually sketches a clumsy version of a bird design in pencil. Next, he makes a model in clay t6o ascertain if he can get the bird in a pose he wants once he starts working on the wood carving.

Of all the things Madsen could have chosen to carve, he chose birds because he has always enjoyed watching them. He loves flying as well but being human (in this life, anyway), he soars through the air in a plane.

Madsen took up carving 18 years ago just as something to do in his mid-20s.

The talent is perhaps inherited from his father who was a shipwright.

Up until eight years ago, he also worked as a carpenter and a musician, which brings up to the other skill that Madsen has which makes him unique.

His is a fine bass player; so fine that he played in rock star Bryan Adams’ band.

He prefers what he does for a living now because “it’s peaceful and it’s quiet” and, though Adams asked him to return to the band a few years ago, Madsen wants to spend more than two months out of each year with his children, so made the decision to stay off the road as a musician.

This practical side seems to be what keeps Madsen balanced.

When asked if he has difficulty letting go of a carving once it is complete, he said, “Usually I’m so sick of looking at them, I’m glad they’re gone.”

Sort of the same as a lot of “regular” people feel about their work.


To read more of Tanya Lester’s posts in this blog, please go to other at or

Tanya’s book are Confessions of a Tea Leaf Reader (which can be purchased from the author or from, Friends I Never Knew, Dreams and Tricksters, and Women Rights/Writes.

To get a tea leaf reading, tarot, psychic channeling or mediumship from Tanya or for more information about her in general go to , Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or Google.

She also housesits, art models, is a reiki master and a freelance writer.


















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