The Woodpecker According to James Emerson


The Woodpecker According to James Emerson

It is junior year in high school for James Emerson. In addition to his AP classes he was encouraged to take an advanced art class. It is a sculpture class and the first day he tells his teacher, “I saw a woodpecker at my grandparents house. They gave me a glimpse of him at their bird feeder, a red-bellied woodpecker. They cautioned me to not move too quickly or too close to the window." The reason he shared with his teacher: “So I would be able to see it without frightening it. I want to see if I create one just like that woodpecker out of clay. Maybe, it will be good enough to give them as a gift.”

His art teacher at Hampton Roads Academy in Newport News Virginia was thrilled James had a plan and a reason for creating that was meaningful for him. She thought: ”Having a need to express oneself, to capture what one remembers in nature, to also be able to share this with grandparents, what a great driving force.”

It was a tough task to go from his memory to crafting it from clay. But he was motivated to construct this bird precisely as he remembered it. Recreating the moment of being with his grandparents, sharing nature together with them, remembering the excitement of that time, and that majestic bird on the feeder.

He told his teacher not only did he see that woodpecker one time for a minute or so, probably several times while he was beckoned by his grandparents: “James the woodpecker has returned, come quickly, but slowly.” To him that exhortation seemed a little double talk, but he understood what they were trying to do.

He was especially smitten with the fact they stopped what they were doing to watch this special bird. His grandmother would summon everyone: “The woodpecker is here! Come see it before he leaves!” Oftentimes, by the time others would get to a good vantage point to see this majestic bird that dwarfed the Titmouse, Goldfinch, Song Sparrow, and Downy Woodpecker, it was sated, or frightened, and flew away.

James noted in retrospect the detail he wanted to reproduce. Such a beautiful red on the back of its head, the tail with a black and white design, things he deemed unforgettable. He shared with his parents: “You have to be fastidious, fast and unobtrusive. Even when you were, that bird seemed to land, eat, and move away.”

His observation was it was seldom he was able to get a long look at that majestic woodpecker. But he knew if he were patient, it would return for more food as the other song birds deferred to it when he came to feed. Then it occurred to him: “How do we know it is the same bird that is coming to the feeder every time? But he bought into the idea, it was. After all his grandparents suggested that it was the same bird.

He related how his grandparents loved watching birds on the feeder, but this bird especially created a stir. “We would be called to see this large bird with dark red highlights,” said James. In fact his grandmother had named it,  “Big Joe the Woodpecker.” He thought it extraordinary, maybe even a bit eccentric his grandparents named a bird that visited the bird feeder given there were many different kinds that would come to one of the two hanging from a limb of the River Birch in their back yard.

Most people would not think a thing about a bird, not even if one that was different and extraordinary. Many would scoff at the attention it was given at his grandparents’ house, but for some reason, James made another connection to his grandparents and “Big Joe” was it. He found a way to connect to them and the mean time he was connected to nature. It made a lasting impression upon him. Too, it was a shared experience that he would remember.

James spent most of the year working on his project, recalling that visit to his grandparent’s house and the amazing introduction to a woodpecker they called Joe. He called to share what he was doing with his grandparents” “Joe’s tail feathers are extraordinary. I have to create a special texture with the interspersed white and black.”  Creating it in clay was only half of the task. Making it “real” with color and texture was especially important for him. He recognized the task was a challenge that beckoned him to do his best, to try, to explore, to retry until it was what he believed depicted that special woodpecker.

As he was working on the details he thought, somehow I must find a way to make my “Big Joe the Woodpecker” able to stand. So he added to the task at hand, he needed to construct something where his woodpecker would rest. So he created a stump with a notch to protect it from falling, keeping it upright.

His art teacher watched as a lump of hard, gray material, an idea began to be shaped into  “Big Joe the Woodpecker”.  It was growing from an amorphous clay state to a living, breathing figure.

His sculpting project was exceptionally purposeful; it was his connection to nature and his grandparents. He diligently attacked this project with such verve that his art teacher saw over time how James was passionate in creating what he saw fleetingly to something meaningful and life-like.

The piece came alive and was completed. Like any artist, he was uncertain about the final project. He spoke with his grandparents and suggested there were things he still wanted to do to improve it, but it was already fired in the kiln and painted. His teacher understood his concerns but nevertheless let him know his creation was great. She asked James if she could put it in the school’s display cabinet as exemplary. James agreed.

James, a person who is always understated, never braggadocios, was so pleased with his effort and being honored by his teacher that he had forgotten he had never shown it to his grandparents who lived a distance away and could not see the display. “Big Joe” remained there until the mid-year of his senior year. His grandparents had only heard of it, maybe had seen a picture sent via email, but never saw it in person. After all, though he wanted to give it to his grandparents, his teacher’s pride in his creation also inspired her to keep it in the display cabinet.  

James promised his grandparents several times he would send it to them, but for some reason his teacher loved it also. It was a great example of creating something with a purpose, a connection, and how his teacher loved the creation and the reasons for his effort.  

As all seniors must do, in order to go to college, they must write essays, complete applications. James asked several people to write recommendations for one school of the schools he wanted to attend, a prestigious one. His approached his art teacher and asked if she would write a recommendation letter for him.  While being honored she did not know what she could write. Then she decided, “Big Joe the Woodpecker” was something she could especially address in her recommendation. She saw in him not only an artistic flair, but also a sense of love and care that melded together in his final project that prevented her from taking out of the display case.

She mentioned to James’ mother her quandary about what to write as a recommendation. His teacher had hoped what she had written about his sculpture of the red-bellied woodpecker would be adequate. His mother reassured her that James was driven to create in clay what mattered to him, a connection not only to the natural world, but also to his grandparents.

It was Christmas time of his senior year and wrapped underneath his family’s Christmas tree was a box duly wrapped and with a bow. It was to his grandparents who had arrived to spend a week with his family in Virginia.

Just before Christmas day, James received a letter from a college. He opened with great excitement and with trepidation since only a fraction of people applying to that school was accepted and a smaller number yet were accepted as “early admission.” This was early admission so his excitement grew as he opened the letter with great verve.

It was an early acceptance! He thought perhaps one reason for being accepted had something to do with his art teacher’s recommendation that told the story about “Big Joe the Woodpecker.” She was so excited for him and hoped she had helped in some way in his acceptance.

His grandparents arrived for Christmas and the whole family was ebullient about James acceptance. There was celebration and joy that James had been accepted to a school he wanted to attend in the fall. What a joyful time!

Christmas morning, as the family opened their presents, James' present to his grandmother and grandfather was handed to them. As they carefully opened the box he carefully wrapped, his grandmother saw out from the protective paper “Big Joe the Woodpecker.” Tears of joy streamed down their faces. Parents and grandparents alike saw that woodpecker held hostage for months in that display cabinet. Now they could see him, touch him and admire James’ effort. Big Joe had finally been released from his exhibition site at his high school and was now a gift to his grandparents.

We often think about how nature effects people. In this case James was impacted in a way that led to a creation, that led to the pride of his teacher in his creation, that led to an interminable time on display at his school, that led to a recommendation, and to an acceptance to his university of choice. Most of all the gift to his grandparents resides at their house, in a special place to remind them of James and Big Joe.  

It all started with a bird feeder and his grandmother’s identification of “Big Joe the Woodpecker.” Nature, the arts, making connections, love seem to all have coalesced in this case.