By Ginny Prior
Photography by Phyllis Christopher
His bronze birds are treasured by premiers and princes. Four U.S. presidents have commissioned his art. Yet Wheatley Allen modestly works in his Glenview basement, plying a trade that he learned as a child in the Bay Area. “When I was a boy in rural Marin County,” Allen remembers, “I marveled at the way a covey of quail could explode from a quiet bush.” His family loved hunting, but Allen was never a very good shot. He was, however, handy with his Boy Scout knife. One day, during a vacation at Lake Tahoe, Allen sat on the pier and whittled a bird out of sugar pine wood. That’s when he got his first customer. “Trader Vic Bergeron asked me what I would charge to make him a quail,” Allen recalls. “I had no idea who he was, but he was a friend of some neighbors camping next to us.” The boy blurted out a figure, which he was sure was too high—$10—and Bergeron said, “Make it $20!” (Today Wheatley gets up to $12,000 apiece for his sculptures.)
That celebrity sale was all it took to wet Allen’s whistle for bird sculpting. He continued carving through high school and even for a time in the Navy. Getting married spawned new dreams of success as his artist wife, Rosemary, stood by him in his endeavors. “When we came to Mendocino in 1966,” Allen recalls, “we didn’t have any money in the bank.” So the couple boxed up some of Allen’s birds and held a one day show in the Bay Area. It was a sellout, and the money they made was enough to live modestly for a year.
But it wasn’t until 1972 when his next big break came. The Sacramento Bee ran a two-page feature on Allen, smack in the middle of the Sunday section. Then-Gov. Ronald Reagan read the piece and had his assistant order two quail sculptures—as gifts for the prime minister and the emperor of Japan. “Twelve years later when I met President Reagan at the White House,” Allen recalls, “he remembered every detail of those transactions, and remarked that the quail made a perfect gift because the emperor loved birds.”
But it was another world leader at Stanford’s Hoover Institution that provided an even more memorable experience. It was 1992, and Allen had just sent a picture of his snow goose to a friend who knew the secretary of state at the time, George Schultz. “I asked if it would make an appropriate gift from Schultz to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev,” Allen recalls. The next thing he knew, Schultz’s secretary was calling to see if the sculptor could be there at 7 a.m. with the snow goose. He was there at 6:30 a.m. Little did he know he’d be asked to present his sculpture to Gorbachev later that day, with just a five-second warning. “I was shaking in my boots,” Allen says, but he managed to grab the bird and announce, “Mr. President, this is a snow goose that migrates between our two countries.” The response was electrifying. “You mean a living link,” Gorbachev replied, obviously understanding the poetry. Allen was thrilled and says he’ll always remember the twinkle in the Soviet leader’s eyes. “It was one of my most cherished moments.”
But despite Allen’s powerful connections, he still modestly handles his own marketing and sales. And he’s pleasantly surprised when he gets a new commission. “I’ll go six months or a year and not much happens,” he says quietly, “then the White House calls and I think it’s my brother playing a joke.”
When an order comes in, the work begins with the wood whittling and ends with a process that includes pouring 2,000-degree bronze into a ceramic shell. When the bird is removed, the bronze is enhanced with its own patina. All Allen’s pieces are limited editions of 100, but the patina is done by hand, and that makes each creation unique.
Like the birds he sculpts, Allen seems to soar through life—often on a wing and a prayer. At 64, he looks like the picture of health but has been battling Parkinson’s for over a decade. The disease gives him hand tremors, which he counteracts with medicine and, of all things, music. “I can play the piano probably better than ever,” he says with a smile, not unlike that of the man to whom he presented the snow goose 15 years earlier. “God gives us what he thinks we can bear,” he reflects. “I just wish he didn’t have such a high opinion of me.”
You can see Wheatley Allen’s work online at www.wheatleyallen.com. His new book, Howard Wheatley Allen—Sculptor to Emperors, President and Kings, is available on his Web site.