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Artist lets her creativity soar

Johanna Archibald knows birds.

She recalls her childhood days, watching the birds that flew into her back yard in Tampa Bay, looking for a meal of insects or small fish.

"That was Tampa Bay before it was developed," she said.

These days, she sometimes visits a pair of sandhill cranes, lifelong mates roosting behind the Homosassa Springs Bank. She stakes out the places around her parents' Mason Creek home where the best-looking native birds gather. She goes to the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park to watch birds. Her close friends send her pictures of birds.

And there is this field on the back roads around Brooksville where she can pull off the road to observe hundreds of red-headed sandhill cranes foraging for food in the sandy soil.

"You can pull over, and they let you get real close to them," she said.

For three and a half years, birds have been a source of artistic inspiration to Archibald. She sculpts them in lifelike poses, calling her art form Birds of Paradise. She only sculpts native Florida birds, usually those found in the water's edge around the estuaries and marshlands of central Florida.

Her bird sculptures include striking life-sized replicas of the stoic lakeside hunter, the great blue heron.

With an average height of just over 3 feet and a wingspan of 7 feet, the solitary great blue heron is an impressive work of art in full scale. After it was finished, she took it to the Riverworks fine arts gallery in Old Homosassa. It sold the following day, she said.

But, Archibald admits, life-sized replicas of those large birds are not for everybody.

"A great blue heron was my first life-size work," she said. "But now, I only do life-size by request."

The self-taught Homosassa sculptor creates native Florida birds in action poses. She uses only raw cypress purchased in Bushnell. She focuses on using local material to sculpt local birdlife.

After stacking and drying the large cypress pieces, she cuts them into rough shapes at her parents Mason Creek home. She prefers using the large power tools in their outdoor space because of all the sawdust.

From there, the rough-cut pieces go to her garage, where she uses smaller power tools to finish the sculpture. The birds are then painted and mounted.

Her birds are posed realisticallyin a split second of bird movement that not only illustrates the bird but captures its stealth as a hunter or its striking wildlife beauty.

Displayed on shelves throughout her home are life-sized sculptures of herons and egrets, aiming their beaks to lance the water for a small fish. Her most popular pieces are miniature herons and egrets.

Sometimes, photos her friends send her become the models. Other times, it is an image that is only in her mind. She calls the process hatching.

Presently, she's trying to hatch an image of the Gallinule, a purple marsh hen that looks like a cross between a duck and a chicken.

While raising her children, she was director of a day care center, operated a tailor shop out of her home in Hilton Head, S.C., and dabbled in a variety of arts. The sculpting profession came three and a half years ago, following time spent in South Carolina. She calls it her lost soul period.

"I finally grew up and decided what it was I wanted to do. My parents and children support the idea, and that's really great," she said.

"My mind is my road map to art," she said. "My style evolves from month to month. People who see my work now say they can see a big difference from just six months ago.

"I go for realism but not a fantastic amount of detail," she said.

Archibald stays very busy. Her full-time devotion to her art has her attending art shows every weekend during the winter. In the summer months, she travels to Charleston, S.C., to sell pieces at wholesale prices to large art galleries.

Archibald is usually accompanied at local art shows by fellow artists Wayne Timm, Phyless Milton, Mary Ann Winters and Penny Bergland. Known as the Nature Coast Artists, they are local artists who focus on wildlife.