A well-observed folk-art flock

This brotherhood of alert birds all but overwhelms its perch. But then, vitality and decoration seem more likely to have been the unknown artist's intent than realism. All the same, this Pennsylvania German wood carving was whittled and painted by someone who knew bird species and enjoyed celebrating differences in size and shape, markings, and colors - the speckling of breasts and backs; the subtle shades of russet, soft yellow, ochre, or blue-black. These are not gaudy and artificial, but birds as the carver knew them in the fields and woods.

The Pennsylvania Germans, often called Pennsylvania Dutch, were escapees from religious intolerance. Success at farming led them to build more imposing and comfortable houses, and then they started to recreate their folk-craft traditions. They were true folk artists, unpretentiously combining utility with decoration. Their heyday was the mid-18th to the mid-19th century. Industrial manufacture eventually replaced such homemade artifacts.

The multiplicity of their crafts was extraordinary, from wrought-iron hasps to cookie cutters, butter molds to weather vanes, painted chests to decorated birth certificates. Perhaps these craft objects, which today have such appeal for their honest directness, also began to look crude and amateurish. Presumably the maker of the Bird Tree - which may have been made as a gift to a loved one or to mark the arrival of a new baby - would be astonished that his modest, affectionate carving now resides in a prestigious art museum.

Illuminated birth certificates made by the Pennsylvania Dutch often include birds. They symbolize nature, renewal, rebirth, and offer enchanting hints of spring in the air. They perch on sprigs and flowers not always bold enough, realistically, to support them. Trees are also favorite motifs, and although religious symbolism is by no means predominant in these decorations, such trees sometimes have Adam and Eve standing on either side, with a serpent coiled around the trunk, suggesting mortality.

"Bird Tree," however, relates more probably to another popular tree image - the Tree of Life, an emblem of innocence and immortality.

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