For sculptors Jon and Marilu Bryan, art is for the birds, literally.
The Dayton couple, who operate under the name of Papa Jon’s Fly Inns, create handcrafted, one-of-a-kind birdhouses that look like something one would keep on a special shelf in the living room. But they are fully functional outdoor homes for flying creatures, designed to handle wind, weather and wet.
“They’re made to be outside and for birds to really use,” Jon Bryan says, “But I have people who plug the holes in them so birds can’t get in. Some people put them all over their houses as décor — in the kitchen, in the living room. We have Realtors who put them in houses that they’re showing.
“Other people put them outside and let me know about the different birds that have nested in them.”
Designed for small birds, the house shells are built out of premium, long-lasting cedar topped by hand-hammered, galvanized metal roofs that are insulated to protect birds from the heat.
The entrance holes are sized to invite in small nesting birds, like chickadees or finches, but keep out predators and “undesirables,” like starlings.
“We don’t want anything to get in to hurt the eggs or the chicks,” Jon says.
“I did a lot of research about making a birdhouse that is usable by birds. I wanted to make sure that the materials were friendly to the birds, as well as the design.”
That being said, his part is the easy one, Jon insists.
He credits his wife and business partner, Marilu, with creating — by hand — the decorations that festoon the houses, adornments that are carefully chosen and arranged to portray a particular subject matter or motif.
There are coastal-themed birdhouses, complete with sea shells, driftwood and Marilu’s quirky interpretation of a pelican. A farm-themed house features real straw, artfully strewn around a cow and a chicken.
There also are trains, frogs, cactus and a moose. One piece, a particularly tall edifice titled “Flying High in the Vineyard,” features a tiny table with miniature wineglasses and a dainty loaf of French bread.
Standing in front of an array of these avian domiciles, the viewer understands the quandary of whether to hang the work outside for birds to enjoy, or keep it inside, where human décor preferences prevail.
One hopes that a happy compromise is established, and as it is recommended that the houses be brought in during the winter months, peace between species should prevail.
Started nine years ago as a means of supplementing their retirement, Jon and Marilu’s part-time project quickly grew into one that can take all the time they’re willing to give it.
Initially, they exhibited in art fairs and garden shows throughout the Northwest. Since moving to Dayton from Olympia five years ago, they have scaled back and keep busy enough fulfilling orders from people who find Papa Jon’s Fly Inns at their Etsy shop, or who discover them at Wenaha Gallery in Dayton.
Over the years, Jon and Marilu’s birdhouse sculptures have won numerous awards, including Best of Show at Allied Arts Art in the Park in Richland and the Apple Blossom Festival in Wenatchee, and Judge’s Choice at Issaquah Salmon Days and the Chelan Fine Arts Show. Oddly, or maybe not, the couple does not keep their birdhouses on their own country property, adjoining the Touchet River a few miles out of town. One would think that the birds would be delighted with such a setting.
Jon agrees, but explains, “I’ve kept a few birdhouses up at our place in the past, but I don’t tend to do that now because I end up selling them.”
So birds at his place, unfortunately, must scrabble together a home on their own, without a table, wineglasses and loaf of bread.
“Our art is created with a sense of humor and light-heartedness,” Marilu says. “There’s a sense of adventure — life and art should be fun and colorful.”
Freelance writer Carolyn Henderson is the co-owner, with her husband, of Steve Henderson Fine Art and a consultant for Wenaha Gallery of Dayton. She can be reached at Carolyn@SteveHendersonFineArt.com.