Bob Carrier of Clearwater is an artist, but he has never used a paintbrush or a canvas.
Instead, he renders Florida's abundant and colorful bird life solely with tiny strips of fabric. Against cloth-covered wooden panels, birds, trees, branches, flowers and grass emerge in bright colors so intricately pieced together that they create the illusion of being painted in oils.
"My dream has always been to make something out of nothing," said Carrier. "I wanted to do something no one else has done."
He shares a small Clearwater home near U.S. 19 and Sunset Point Road with Janet DeBonville, whom he calls his chief critic. The house teems with the fruit of his painstaking labor. In one three-dimensional piece, a pelican is perched on a branch against a sky-blue background in a scene that includes pink hibiscus blossoms, tiny fabric birds in flight and a little cloth boat on a dark sea.
The regal-looking pelican is in good company in Carrier's collection. His fabric scenes contain flaming red cardinals, snowy egrets, slate blue herons and sandhill cranes.
Carrier, 47, occasionally exhibits his work at local art shows and sells his art on his website, fabric-expressions.com.
But he also has a day job. On weekdays, he sets up home medical equipment like oxygen tanks. On nights and weekends, he dons magnifying glasses resembling swimming goggles, turns on Vivaldi or Bach, and goes to work on his favorite feathered creatures.
"It's my passion," he said of his art. "I don't think of it as work."
In the back room of his home stands a small table holding the tools of his trade: scissors, pliers, a regular iron and a miniature iron made from a metal triangle affixed to a pencil-sized shaft.
Cups of fabric strips are on hand as well, alongside wire mesh, aluminum foil and bonding paper that can withstand the iron's heat.
The artist works from photographs, many of which he shot himself. He begins a typical bird by applying the bottom feathers first. He then overlaps succeeding layers of feathers to ensure an accurate match.
"I cut these strips piece by piece and bird by bird," he said.
One recent evening, a 3-D work in progress lay on the worktable. For a large branch, Carrier rolled a cylinder of wire mesh and covered it with heated bonding paper, enabling strips of cloth "bark" to adhere to it. Nearby lay the heron's head, fashioned from cone-shaped foil also encased in bonding paper. The feathers had been ironed on, and the bird's bright black eyes seemed to gaze back at the artist.
"This will be a big piece," he said. "The problem will be where to put it and how to hold it up."
Carrier, who moved to Florida from Cleveland with his family in 1982, has no formal art training. About 10 years ago, though, his artistic side came to the fore while working with his father, Bill Carrier, a former tile setter who cut ceramic tiles with a wet saw and then created scenes with the pieces. Inspired by his father, Carrier created an elegant peacock out of tiles and marble.
"I learned discipline with this piece," he said. "It's a personal piece, and I'll never sell it."
From there Carrier moved to fabric, replicating his peacock in soft, colorful strips. He said he got the idea for fabric while accompanying DeBonville, a quilter, to a quilting show.
Carrier is moving more and more into 3-D art, but he's not sure where else he'll venture artistically.
"The creative force leads and I follow," he said. "It's a smooth relationship."