Down the road in Sumter lives a South Carolina gem named Grainger McKoy. Grainger, born in 1947, creates wood sculptures of birds that are so lifelike that they appear to take flight. His nationally renowned talent may impress many, but it is his humility, constant quest for spiritual growth and connection with relationships that makes this Carolina artist truly shine.
Grainger’s passion for carving wood began in the log cabin family home his father built. When he was a young boy, tragedy struck his family of five when Adair Morey McKoy, Sr., his father, died of a heart attack on Thanksgiving morning, 1956. “When our father died, our family became very close. We had to,” Grainger remembers.
Priscilla, Grainger’s mother, lovingly raised her three sons while working as a secretary for the Episcopal church. “She would do anything for us,” he recalls. “During the winter months, she would take a brick from the fireplace and wrap it in a towel. When we went to bed, she would tuck it next to our cold feet. It really worked!” She also made sure the McKoy sons had full childhoods as they played sports, participated in the 4-H Club, and when they were of age, they each drove the school bus.
Priscilla nurtured her three sons as well as their interests. Adair, her oldest son, loved plants, so Priscilla gave him a patch in her garden to grow his passion. He grew up to be a successful South Carolina farmer. Her son, Peter, had an interest in animals, so Priscilla bought Peter a small white mouse and helped foster his love of animals. That love sprang into a successful career as a veterinarian. Thus, when Grainger expressed an interest in wood carving at 13, she brought him outside to the corner of their home, gave him a saw and picked him up by his belt so he could reach one of the logs of his home to saw off a section. That piece of wood became the first bird Grainger ever carved. The bird’s simplicity and beauty foreshadowed a career that would take his artwork all over the United States.
Furthering his interest in wildlife, Grainger attended Clemson University, earning a degree in zoology. After college, he married Floride Owens, his childhood sweetheart whom he met in the third grade when she sat in front of him in class. Grainger then spent 18 months as an apprentice to Gilbert Maggioni, a well-known painter and sculptor from Beaufort, South Carolina, who encouraged Grainger and helped him refine his technique. Afterward, Grainger and Floride began to raise their family in Charleston as he worked on his woodcarvings.
Grainger did not begin his career, which now spans 47 years, with the sense of appreciation for his success he now carries. After a successful exhibit in New York City where everything sold, the 27-year-old found himself walking down 57th Street watching the sunset. “I remember the exhibit director had just put a check in my shirt pocket, and I was on the way home. I felt that all I had to look forward to was working another two years to get back to this same spot. I thought, ‘Is this it? Is this what my life is going to look like from here on out?’ It just floored me,” he sighs. “I wondered, ‘Is there something else?’”
A few years later, these questions lingered in his mind as a childhood friend, Dick Fogle, was stricken with kidney failure and was dying in a South Carolina hospital. Grainger went to Dick’s bedside, observing his friend’s peaceful countenance compared to his own nagging frustrations.
“He hugged me and told me, ‘Grainger, you are going to be all right.’”
Grainger shakes his head incredulously as he reminisces. “I was in awe. I thought, ‘I’m going to be all right?’ He was dying, and there he was telling me that I was going to be all right. I supposedly had the world ahead of me, yet though he was dying, his concern was for me.”
Reflecting on that powerful moment, he pauses and then adds, “He had a hope I didn’t have.” A couple of days later Dick died, and shortly after that, Grainger found himself with a prayer book in his hand reading the Nicene Creed, which transformed his heart and infused him with the same peace that he had seen in Dick. Thus, the focus for Grainger’s art turned from loving the creation to loving the Creator. “I couldn’t misrepresent a bird, because if I misrepresented a bird, I misrepresented God and His creation,” explains Grainger. The striking level of detail this transformation fostered in his work became his trademark.
As his work became well known, he garnered respect from elite followers. Robin Salmon, vice president of Art and Historical Collections and curator of sculpture at Brookgreen Gardens in Murrells Inlet, has followed Grainger’s work for many years. “Everything he does is fabulous. No one else works the way he does.” Robin says. “You can look at his work and immediately know it is by Grainger McKoy.”
Part of this distinction comes from the way he creates each feather separately with great detail before adding it to the body of the bird. To make certain of his accuracy, he watches birds for hours on end in the Carolina rice fields. He also uses the bodies of dead birds that he keeps in a freezer in his workshop. He even carries a specific permit to keep them in his freezer.
More than 25 years ago, after spending years in Charleston, Floride and Grainger moved their family home back to Sumter where they purchased The Governor Miller House, a 200-year-old plantation home. The Miller home, rich in history, sits among beautiful live oaks draped with Spanish moss.
Grainger’s shop is a few yards away from the main house on the property. Sitting at his desk in a corner with windows facing the expansive yard, he works with a small 2-inch feather for a new bird, painstakingly burning in details with the thin tip of a wood-burning tool. He creates details on both the top and bottom of the wing, even though the bottom of the wing will be unseen.
One of his well-known pieces, Least Bittern, is one of 12 sculptures permanently exhibited at Brookgreen Gardens. It depicts a bird peering into the water. “I was in an old rice field looking at this bird. The water was so calm and so slick,” Grainger says explaining his inspiration for the sculpture. He studied the importance of the bird and its reflection which he says is never as clear as reality.
“A reflection is always going to be a little fuzzy, by wind or a slight movement in the water. It’s somewhat distorted,” Grainger explains. “It’s the same with people. We are but reflections of the truth. We are distorted. If you want to see clarity and the truth, you look to God.”
Contrast is important to Grainger’s art and his life. He constantly builds and sharpens his artistic style, incorporating representations of nature with his birds. He has also worked in large scale, most notably on a duck’s wing. Recovery is a 12-foot wing sculpture of a Pintail Duck, cast in stainless steel from wood. It sits in the middle of Swan Lake Iris Gardens in Sumter. Like all of Grainger’s work, the wing is magnificently detailed, but it looks more like an angel’s wing than that of a Pintail Duck. Grainger has different sizes of the Recovery sculpture, a 6-foot version that sits in his shop and another that will grace the Grainger McKoy exhibit at the Greenville County Museum of Art.
This exhibit, which opened this past July, hosts a mini-retrospective of his work from the 1970s to the present and is free to the public. Chesnee Klein, curator for GCMA, says, “A few years back, we borrowed the large basswood Recovery Stroke sculpture and got incredible feedback from visitors. Grainger is such a delight and easy to work with.”
Grainger’s captivation with birds’ wings is apparent with Recovery. “I love bird flight,” he says. “That is what birds do. They fly. All birds have a power stroke and a recovery stroke.” The power stroke is what lifts the bird; however, a bird cannot be in a power stroke constantly. There must be a time when the wing relaxes.
“When birds fly, there is a pause, and then they bring their wing back up. It’s like a Venetian blind — the feathers twist. It is the weakest wing position they can be in because they are not getting any lift,” he says. Grainger believes a bird has a unique beauty and grace during the recovery stroke, yet it is when the bird is most vulnerable.
Grainger compares the recovery stroke to 2 Corinthians 12:9: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” He explains that everyone has experienced recovery, whether it is recovery from the flu, a car accident or the death of a loved one. “It is in our recovery that we sense God’s grace and beauty,” Grainger adds.
From years of participating in prison ministry, he believes the greatest art is a changed heart. “All I am doing is changing the surface of a piece of wood to make it look like something it is not. The greatest art in the world is when someone is walking in one direction, something internally changes, and he then turns and walks a different way.”
On one of the rafters in his shop hangs a net with old shoes –– some with holes worn through the soles. The old shoes perplexingly contrast his masterpieces. “Those are all the shoes I have worn since becoming a Christian. It is not where you have been that matters. The only thing that matters is where you are going.” Grainger points to a new pair of shoes in a separate net hanging next to the old shoes and says, “You see, those new shoes over there? Those are the only ones that matter.”
A young child gave Grainger his greatest compliment. He smiles and tells the story of a group of local first-grade students who came to his studio on a field trip. The teacher nervously told the students not to touch anything. To remind the students of Grainger’s fragile work, the teacher asked the room full of first graders, “Now why is Mr. McKoy’s bird in a glass case?” Grainger laughs as he remembers a little boy blurting out, “I know why! It’s to keep them from smelling bad.” What a testimony that his work is truly lifelike.
One of Grainger’s greatest accomplishments is his focus on life. Regarding the importance of his artwork, his sparkle truly shines through as he says, “It’s not about the work: all this work becomes a conduit. All this work will crumble and deteriorate. So what is it all about? It is about relationships. Because when all of the water is boiled out of the pot of your life, all that is going to be left are your relationships.” On so many levels, Grainger McKoy has achieved many accomplishments, exemplifying Ecclesiastes 9:10: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.”