Surrounded by drawings of owls, a collage of owl photos and an actual “skin” of an owl suspended from the ceiling of her studio, Lona Hymas-Smith is in the process of creating a wildlife masterpiece.  A year has already gone into studying its habitat, lifestyle and behavioral traits as Lona comes to intimately know the species she will carve.

Photo © Jason Lugo

Burley resident, Lona Hymas-Smith is a world renowned wood carver/artist.

Fifteen years ago Lona was faced with a life-changing decision. She could move up in position with Bureau of Land Management, or make wood carving her profession. She sought advice from her husband Dennis, who encouraged her to pursue her carving passion. With his support, that decision not only changed the direction of her life, but also vaulted Lona to one of the most sought after wildlife carvers in the world.  She has since won awards with the prestigious Ward World Championship and her work is displayed in national museums and galleries throughout the United States and Canada.

A slender woman with deep brown eyes and calm aura, Lona shares her intrinsic love for art by observing, “God has given me the talent, vision and ability to express my deep connection with, and love for, the natural world that surrounds us all.”

At 4 years old she was drawing human forms. Later she majored in sculpture at BYU-Idaho, taking all the classes she could in human figure drawing and 3-D art. But it wasn’t until 14 years after college that she discovered her rare talent in wild life art.

Photo Courtesy - Lona Hymas Smith

This Large Mouth Bass chasin' a Southern Leopard frog belongs to Country Music Artist Brad Paisley.

“Can you cut me out some fish shapes?” Lona’s sister asked, seeking help with a decorative display in her home. That was the beginning point of unlocking her talent. Those first rudimentary efforts at recreating nature inspired Lona to continue. She worked on carving fish during night shifts at BLM.  Laughingly, Lona notes that her brother-in-law bribed his friends to buy some of her first creations.

Her interest and unique talent also turned to carving birds. One of the first birds she carved was a Kestrel, a member of the falcon family, which took a year to finish. It sold immediately.

Reaching a point when she felt her carvings were professional enough to go big, Lona remembers her first time walking into a high-end gallery with her work. The woman at the desk took one look at it and referred her to the gift shop down the street. Humiliated but undaunted, Lona went back to carving and strengthened her vision and skill to connect with the natural world around her. Three years later she returned. This time she was ushered with respect into a room where her work was appraised. Her carvings are now displayed in several galleries and demand prices from $1,500 to $20,000.

Photo © Jason Lugo

Lona paints detail on the branch of her Saw-Whet owl wood carving.

The studio, where life begins for Lona’s creations, overlooks the placid Snake River where she has lived nearly all her life. Divided into two rooms, each studio has a large picturesque window that keeps the calming effect of the river in constant view. The first area is used for both the beginning and final stages of her carvings. Here, a penciled sketch captures the rough idea before it is put to color. After the image has been created on paper it comes to life in clay. Molding the clay with her hands and tools, the shape and size of the bird or fish are determined. From there it’s sized for 3-D replication by redrawing the front sides and back on paper again.

Moving to the adjacent studio, Lona begins the carving process. A large bin with wood selections and branches sits under a workspace. When creating birds Lona chooses tupelo, a Southern hardwood that allows fine details to be engraved in it. For fish she uses basswood.

A collection of tools, including a band saw and belt sander, along with surgical dental power instruments that employ an assortment of diamond and ruby bits, are used to create fine details on each carving.  Using surgical magnifying glasses, some days she spends up to 20 hours carving and painting. Even the most minor details are meticulously crafted:  the branches and pinecones on which the birds rest, along with the shiny rocks that are displayed with her life-like fish.  “To use the real thing,” she notes, “Would be plagiarism.”

Photo © Jason LugoWhen she finishes carving and sanding, Lona moves back to the first studio where she begins painting with acrylic paints. Layers of washes are put on as the delicate colors and hues begin to emerge, giving life to her work of art.   Her finished product may take anywhere from one week to a year to complete.  In view of time spent on her carving career, Lona quips, “You’ve got to love it to do it!”

Lona’s skill and talent have been largely self-taught as she experiments with different methods of carving and painting. Enhancing her knowledge, she has worked with some of the world’s best wildlife artists and attended the British School of Falconry in Vermont. Lona is one of only two recognized women bird carvers in Idaho as well as the only woman fish carver.

Photo Courtesy - Lona Hymas Smith

Pair of Black Cap Chickadees

Her talent and work is rare, unique and in demand.  Commissioned to carve through 2011 is evidence of Lona’s successful career choice. In retrospect of her husband’s encouragement to pursue her gifted abilities, Lona observes, “He’s my number one fan.  He’s the reason I carve.”

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