Czarnecki casts his love for eagles in steel

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CHESHIRE — If you are as lucky (and persistent) as Berkshire Eagle photographer Ben Garver, you might spot a nesting bald eagle near Onota Lake this summer. Cheshire Lake and Goose Pond would be good places to check out, too.

But if you would merely like to see the U.S. national symbol in three dimensions, you are guaranteed to get your fix at next weekend's Berkshires Arts Festival. Now in its 17th year, this year's gathering at Ski Butternut features 175 jury-selected artists, including one who fashions eagles entirely from stainless steel at his Cheshire home. Welder Gary Czarnecki began producing the works several years ago using machinery in his garage and basement.

"I never considered myself an artist, but I must have some artistic ability because there it is," the 57-year-old Czarnecki said, referring to "Recon," the tree-and-eagle creation occupying his driveway during an early June interview.

At 665 pounds and more than nine feet high, "Recon" is Czarnecki's most ambitious piece to date. It depicts a full-grown female bald eagle perched on a tree.

"She's doing reconnaissance," Czarnecki said.

Czarnecki drew his inspiration from a photograph that showed two bald eagles resting on a branch.

"I told April [Bruchbacher, his partner], 'I got to build that,'" he recalled.

For materials, Czarnecki used a 540-pound base stone from a Goshen company, as well as three-foot-by-eight-foot sheets of No. 8 mirror finish stainless steel from Yarde Metals in Southington, Conn. He shears and shapes individual pieces, including the feathers. These small items are all hand-cut and "TIG-ed on" over a sheathed skeleton to produce the final product, Czarnecki said, alluding to tungsten inert gas (TIG) welding.

"TIG welding is one of the hardest forms of welding that there is because you have a torch, you have your filler rod and then you have a foot pedal that you control your amperage with; you got to use all three things at the same time" while also controlling the feather, he said.

Czarnecki welded for the first time in the U.S. Navy about four decades ago. He subsequently worked for companies that specialized in metal inert gas (MIG) welding. But it wasn't until he was started working as a retail manager that he came up with the idea to start making art.

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"I come home one day, and I say to April, just out of the clear blue, I'm like, 'Wouldn't it be cool to build an American bald eagle out of stainless steel?' I didn't know what to expect for a response, but the response was, 'Do it.' I'm like, 'Oh, I'm screwed now," he recalled.

The decision to focus on eagles came from a deep and abiding love for them.

"I'm one of those people that, if we're going down the road, and I spot a bald eagle, I'll pull right over on the soft shoulder and jump out of the car. I've been like that since I was a kid," said Czarnecki, who grew up in Pittsfield and Windsor.

For his first large-scale work, "Majestic," he recalled building a wing template out of construction paper, working at the kitchen island in his home. His attention-to-detail honors the birds' physicality.

"I studied the American bald eagle down to size differences and beak deviations, lengths of feathers, weight — mine weigh a little bit more than the real ones," he said. "My goal is realism. When people look at my work, I want them to go, 'Ah, it's an American bald eagle.'"

"Majestic" has 1,400 feathers and now lives somewhere near Onota Lake. (He sold the item at a previous edition of the Berkshires Arts Festival.) Between his first and second large-scale building experiences, Czarnecki refined his beak technique. The beak for "Majestic" "was made up of five pieces of stainless steel all welded together and filled, whereas this one was made from one piece and sculpted," Czarnecki said of "Recon."

With "Recon," Czarnecki also had the challenge of making a tree. Instead of mimicking bark to form the trunk and branch, Czarnecki generated 700 stainless steel pieces that mirror bald eagles' eggs. In a current mixed-media project, "Nature Repurposed," Czarnecki is also building an eagle's nest in a front yard tree with an eagle landing on it.

"This tree was actually earmarked to cut down," he said, explaining that he used its branches to form the nest where a couple of doves have currently taken up residence.

In addition to his finished large-scale creations, Czarnecki has created two half-scale works, "Locked On" and "The Strike," that he lugs around in a trailer he bought specifically for transporting his weighty art (and motorcycles). While he isn't offended when people ask which bird his art is focusing on, he does hold a special appreciation for the young viewers who have a penchant for recognizing it immediately.

"The kids that come to the shows that we've done," he said, "they'll be like, 'Mommy! Mommy! It's an American bald eagle!'"

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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