Oaklawn Farm Zoo
Story by Kathryn Spracklin, originally published in Muir's Original Log Home Guide for Builders and Buyers, Winter 1992
The entry building for Oaklawn Farm Zoo is not your average structure. It houses a host of animal carvings that mirror the facility's exotic inhabitants.
The 30 by 40 foot scribe-fit log building in Aylesford, Nova Scotia is handcrafted from winter cut Nova Scotia red and white pine by Heartwood Log Homes Ltd. and is finished with subtly detailed animal head carvings created by artist and one-time log building apprentice John Murray. Ten of the carvings are in the round on second floor joist ends, a cougar flows out of the end of two wall logs, and a relief sculpture suggests an owl on the kingpost. Each represents an animal in the zoo, including resident and pet, Badness, the Pug. ("As a pup she earned her name," says Oaklawn co-owner, Gail Rogerson).
Located one story up, backed by a cathedral ceiling and integral with the log structure, the carvings are defining details to an already magnificent interior. Blending with the building, they're not always immediately noticed; visitors who enter looking straight ahead miss the carvings at first. But when they look up, Rogerson says, "they're really surprised." In a finely finished building such as this one, she adds, "there's so much to see if you look."
SIMPLY BY CHANCE
Carvings were not originally part of Oaklawn's decor plan. The joist ends extending beyond the partition walls during construction gave someone, Rogerson is not sure who, creative inspiration. "I can't remember whose idea it was, " she explains, "that it would be a far more interesting finish to leave the joist ends and carve them with animals heads than if to cut them off square. And it turned out beautifully."
In large measure, the carvings evolved by chance, the first in particular a result of a fortuitous accident. One of the log ends at the entrance to the canteen was cut too short. To rectify the situation, a cougar head and paws came to life from the two log ends below. "When we saw what we had left," Rogerson says, "we thought that a carving might solve the problem."
It also just happened that artist John Murray was a member of the log building crew. A British Columbia sculptor and painter with a background in forestry, Murray was working with Heartwood for six months to learn scribe-fit log building, a craft he says he had long wished to add to his artistic repertoire. This was his first log construction project.
Murray shaped the carvings using a Haida bent knife, a tool he discovered by watching Haida carvers in British Columbia create totem poles. A bent knife has an eight-inch wooden handle ... large enough for two hands, and a two-inch, slightly-curved blade sharpened on both sides so it can be pushed or pulled into the wood. The bent blade makes it possible to dig deeply and "get good contour," Murray explains. Each carving took approximately 30 hours to complete.
For most of the carvings, Murray worked from sketches he made of the animals where they stay, a task not without its hazards. Murray spent time with each of his subjects to get to know and understand something about them before carving their likenesses. While drawing a gibbon, the smallest of the great apes, he was standing dose to the cage when another mischievous gibbon threw itself into the cage right beside him. "If you're not aware, they'll make fun of you," Murray laughs. Badness, the Pug, and an alligator (in an aquarium and under a heat lamp) were brought into the building to model in person.
Because Murray's raw material was already in place in the finished building, working conditions were reminiscent of Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel. Not only did he need to balance on makeshift staging to reach the joist ends, he also had no room for creative error. "It was the kind of job where you can't just scrap one piece and go out and do another. The structure is already built and the only option you have is cutting it off flush with the beam. Fortunately, the folks who commissioned me (the Rogersons) are very good people and allowed me time to do it," Murray says.
Murray completed the cougar carving on nights and weekends during the spring and summer of 1990 while the building was still under construction. But he crafted the rest of the carvings over the winter when the zoo was closed.
A log building, at any stage, is hard to resist. During construction, even though the doorways were blocked, visitors to Oaklawn would climb through window openings to take a peek inside the partly-finished structure and watch Murray carve. "An artist at work needs no distraction," Rogerson says, so the carving was discontinued until he could work in peace.
The Rogersons chose logs for their entrance building because they wanted a distinctive and original structure. The choice was right. The finished log building and its completed carvings continue to be an object of fascination for Oaklawn's visitors.
Heartwood Log Homes of Margaretville, NS, worked together with the Rogersons to develop a building plan to meet the company's needs. The design is based on the Kerry St. House by B. Allan Mackie, and the building contains a canteen, gift shop, public washrooms, a storage area and foyer on the main floor, and a meeting area to assemble tours and give demonstrations upstairs. A roof structure composed of two exposed trusses with an "X-brace" between form a cathedral ceiling. This is a particularly appealing aspect of the design.
One of the advantages of a log building is its ability to make even a commercial structure feel comfortable and inviting. Heartwood's superior finishing details, the carvings, and an art collection, including a nearly full-size papier maché zebra by artist L.C. Campbell, enhance the appeal of the handcrafted log work.
Acting as an additional drawing card, "a well-done, handcrafted log building is good for a tourist-oriented business," Heartwood's Ellis says. It also serves as a permanent "model home" for the builder. Many visitors to Oaklawn are immediately taken with the log building and frequently ask about it. As a result, Oaklawn has sent the company many referrals.
Once crafted, a log structure gains a life and a reputation of its own. "There are a number of people who come to Oaklawn just to look at the log building," Gail Rogerson laughs, and not to go through and look at the critters."