Text and transcription by Susan Taylor Block
Photos by John Murchison, unless noted otherwise
“But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.”- Matthew 10:29
On March 28, 3014, I traveled from Wilmington, North Carolina to Sumter, South Carolina to see bird sculptures and meet the sculptor, but I returned home with impressions of art that seemed a bit overwhelming. Grainger McKoy’s work and reminiscences offered fresh reminders of bigger things like divine creativity, the power of human encouragement, and the mystery of kindred souls seeking truth.
Friend John Murchison accompanied me to Sumter to renew his friendship with Grainger and to take photographs. The three of us sat down to chat in the sculptor’s airy workshop. It was so full of beautiful “birds” that it made me feel like I was perched inside a pleasant cage. They were in various stages of completion and, though stationary, seemed almost animate.
Studying the various manmade birds close-up leaves one with a new sense of awe for living birds. The seemingly infinite diversity of feathers, eyes, forms, patterns, and textures is humbling. To think that they can fly and that they have their own GPS is arresting. Grainger studies both the flying and the still. And he keeps both the living and the dead; he has birds in spacious cages, and keeps a frozen bird morgue in his workshop.
Grainger knows how to integrate intricate details and ingenious civil engineering in his work. He stares and carves and sands and burns and stains and paints the wood into submission. Divine creative energy seems to channel through him to replicate and to interpret. But though he might be the greatest human birdsmith who ever lived, Grainger has learned to pay loving obeisance to The Birdsmith.
Victor Grainger McKoy was born in Wilmington on April 21, 1947, but soon moved to Fayetteville where he lived until the age of three. In 1950, his father, Adair Morey McKoy, took a job at Sumter Supply in Sumter, South Carolina. The new plumbing products business served as a branch of Longley Supply in Wilmington.
For generations, Grainger’s father’s family members were stalwarts in the Wilmington community. The young McKoy family could have had a comfortable, sociable life in the port city and nearby Wrightsville Beach. Grainger’s family tree includes noted silversmith T. W. Brown, authors, historians, legislators, poets, bankers, and attorneys. Victor Grainger, the grandfather for whom Grainger was named, served as senior warden of veritable St. James Episcopal Church for 42 solid years.
However, rock hard stability and predictability did not hold the attention of young Grainger’s parents. Sumter suited them better. They were, as Grainger worded it, thinking “outside the box” years before the phrase would be coined.
“My parents, not purposefully, but partly because they moved away, were free,” said Grainger. His mother, Priscilla Claggett Grainger, was a Sweet Briar College alumnus who had dreams of living in a log cabin. In 1954, they started building one in Sumter. “People were still moving out of log cabins in 1954,” said Grainger, “and here we were, just moving into one.
“Neither the Wilmington nor Sumter lifestyles were wrong, just different,” he continued. “We had goats and cows and chickens. Our neighborhood was multiracial; we all joined the 4-H Club; and we drove school buses as soon as we got a driver’s license. When it came time to drive to Wilmington to visit my maternal grandmother, ‘Miss Katie’ Reston Grainger McKoy, we had to find our shoes. Then, we had to wear them.”
Grainger’s name came originally from Isaac Bates Grainger (1840-1878), a Belfast native who immigrated to Wilmington as a teenager. He became a bank president, city alderman, and a co-owner of Orton Plantation. Gifted in financial savvy, he has been credited with getting the City of Wilmington back in the black after the Civil War. http://susantaylorblock.com/2010/10/26/the-dawsons-and-graingers-county-antrim-to-new-hanover-county/
When Miss Katie paid her first visit to the log cabin, she was horrified to discover that the house had no real windows. Shutters were all that separated the McKoys from rain, freezes, farm smells, and mosquitoes. She wrote a check for $500 and earmarked it for glass windows. “Just so outside the box,” Grainger restated.
Though the McKoys operated on a budget, their encouragement had no ceiling. It was the greatest gift they could give. “They took the time to observe us as children,” said Grainger. “Whatever their children were involved in, absorbed in, interested in — they fanned that. They didn’t try to place in their children what they expected or hoped for. They just observed their children and when they started on a path of interest, they would say, ‘Son, that will be a wonderful adventure.’”
The McKoys observed their oldest child, Adair, loving the land. They let him have his own garden as an early adventure. “Before my father died,” said Grainger, “he bought a little small tractor, just because he saw that in his son. Adair now lives in Edisto. A couple of years ago, he was the largest tomato producer in South Carolina. It was just a case of parents observing a child and putting what interested Adair in front of him.”
The McKoy’s happy life in their cypress log house was changed forever on November 22, 1956, when Grainger’s father died of a heart attack. It was Thanksgiving morning and Adair was only forty years old. Grief abounded. Priscilla lost a soul mate of rare similarity. Adair’s three sons lost half their hearty support team. Nevertheless, they hit the ground sauntering.
“We all got jobs,” said Grainger. “We never knew we couldn’t do anything.” Priscilla McKoy’s job was as secretary of their church, Holy Comforter Episcopal. She earned $25 a week. On that, a monthly social security check for $250, and odd jobs her sons picked up, she and they supported themselves.
Grainger’s father had gone to Woodberry Forest and the University of North Carolina. In Chapel Hill, he roomed with future governor Terry Sanford. Sanford was living in Fayetteville when Adair McKoy died, and was especially attentive to young Adair, Peter, and Grainger. He would call to see how they were doing, and sometimes ask them for a visit. After he became governor, he invited the McKoy boys went to spend a night in the Governor’s Mansion.
Young Grainger found extra support on many sides. His mother was always there for Grainger and his brothers. Being older, they were especially sensitive to his feelings. “I have two hero brothers, Adair and Peter,” he said, just days before Peter would die of cancer. “They raised me up.”
“Peter is a veterinarian,” said Grainger. “From early childhood, he always loved animals, goats and chickens. My father and mother would always give him a goat or pigeon for Christmas or his birthday.” Not long after Grainger’s father died, Priscilla drove all three of her sons to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where her stepfather, William Tilden Brice, and mother, Helen Kenly Grainger, lived. During the road trip, Peter’s career may have been launched.
“Of course, there was no air conditioning,” said Grainger. “There was no I-95. We went through Richmond and Highway 301 was just hell. We were kids that had been sweltering and on the road for something like ten hours. My brother Peter, the middle child, was always the instigator. I remember her pulling in to make a stop at a pet store in downtown Richmond. She came out with a gift for Peter: a little white mouse that cost a quarter.” Of course, Priscilla saw it as a great adventure.
“Now, this is how out of the box she was,” continued Grainger. She handed that mouse to Peter and he put it in his top pocket. Not only did it keep him occupied for the rest of our journey, but also all summer long he was attentive to that little creature. It lived in his top pocket. Urine stains streamed down his shirt, but he didn’t care. My mother didn’t care either.
“But you see, Peter became a veterinarian. That’s all it takes is a quarter. I tell my friends, you don’t have to give your kids a car when they turn 16. Just give them a white mouse. People over-give and under-encourage. Mother was a cheerleader for his interest and now Peter has two vet practices and 42 employees.”
Son Grainger liked to draw and work with his hands from an early age. He took great note of the birds that seemed to always be around. Priscilla McKoy seized the opportunity for her son by enrolling him in art school. Every Saturday, she drove him to Columbia, South Carolina where he took lessons. He began his studies at age ten and quit after age 12, when his voice began to change, and pursuing art did not seem so “cool.”
Thankfully, art soon won out over peer pressure after Grainger received a decoy as a gift from his grandmother, Helen, in Maryland. He was thirteen at the time and still wonders why she sent it to him, but maybe it was just a case of like mother, like daughter. Whatever the reason, grandmother Helen’s gift activated his God-given talent.
“There I was, living in a log cabin with wood all around me. I told my mother that I wanted to carve a bird, but that I needed some dry wood. Right away, she said, ‘I know where some dry wood is.’ We went outside and she put a saw in my hand and lifted me up and let me cut off a piece of cypress from the side of the house. It was an extended piece of log.
“That’s the encourager she was. ‘OK, I know where some dry wood is,’ she said. Then, the next thing you know, the rough sound of sawing filled the air.
That’s the kind of encouragement I got. When somebody lets you saw up the house to fan your interest, you never know what will happen. I still have that bird.”
When time for college came, Grainger went to Clemson. It took him five years. He planned to major in architecture, but switched to zoology. Because he lost some credits, it took him five years to graduate. When he was a senior, he married his wife, Floride. They were well acquainted: she sat in front of him in the third grade, and he had kept up with her ever since. Floride, an only child, finished Converse in three years. Her parents had high hopes for her, but those bright dreams dimmed a bit when Grainger divulged he was moving them to Beaufort where he planned to carve for a living.
Of course, Grainger’s mother responded to the news by saying, “Grainger, that’s a wonderful adventure!”
In 1970, the McKoys moved to Beaufort for Grainger to partner with carver Gilbert Maggioni, a Beaufort resident who first recognized the young man’s profound talent. In 1967, during a hunting trip in Maryland, they attended an exhibition of bird carvings. What they saw gave them a vision of success.
“I had come to know Gilbert over a period of years. He encouraged me a lot. He never sold his own work. He ran an oyster cannery, of all things, down in Lady’s Island. I would go down there in late high school. During college I’d go visit him when I could. Like my mother, he was a great encourager.
“When he asked me to move and partner with him, he said, ‘Give it 6 months, Grainger. Give it a year. Just try it.’ When you’re 21 you think you can do anything. So, that sounded good to me, and Floride, bless her heart, went along with it.
“This story is really about my mother hearing my plan, grabbing my hand, and saying, again, ‘Grainger, that’s a wonderful adventure.’ If it was legal, it was a wonderful adventure. So, that has kind of been our motto with our children and our grandchildren. ‘It’s an adventure. Let’s go. Life is an adventure.’
Then Grainger added, “And when you fold Christ into that picture, it is really an adventure. “
I would have been startled with Grainger’s abrupt switch of focus if it had not been for hearing of his spiritual side from mutual friends, and seeing a Bible reference on one of his current projects. Discussing his faith brought even more animation to his face.
IN HIS OWN WORDS
“I always went to church. With mother being the secretary we were always the first ones to get there. We laughed because she unlocked it because she also locked it. We were there for virtually every function at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church.
“She even brought work home. We spent Tuesday nights folding bulletins and that old addressograph machine was so noisy. You had to pull something down, place the bulletin paper in it, and it went ‘Clomp, clomp.’ All this was done on the dining room table and all three of us helped her. So, I thought I had had enough of church.
“When I went off to college, I was out-of-church. Things stayed that way for years. Some of it was the result of success. When I turned 26, I had my first big show in New York City. I remember walking out of Hammer Galleries. Everything I brought had some in just two days, and I a check in my top pocket. The 57th Street sun was just going down and there was a nice chill in the air. I would fly home the next day, but things had changed.
“Commercial success in a place like New York changes the paradigm. Continued success became my whole focus. I figured I would work very hard for the next two and a half years, and then settle in. I told my family I was doing it for them, but I was doing it for myself. I was self centered and egotistical. Floride took the children to church and I would wave to them as they drove away.
“As I was working towards the next exhibit, I heard from a friend of mine named Dick, who I had lost track of. He had been a helicopter pilot in Viet Nam and now had gotten a terrible kidney disease. He was in line for a transplant. At some point in the conversation, he said, ‘But Grainger I’m a Christian now.’ That ‘s all he said.
“What came to my mind was, ‘If all else fails, try God,’ but I would not be able to get Dick’s words out of my head. He asked me, ‘Grainger, would you mind it I write you a letter?’
“I went on to have my next exhibit in New York and Dick was about to have his kidney transplant, within the same season. What dawned on me during that time was that working two and a half more years more, just as hard as I had been working, would only get me back to that same point. And I said to myself, ‘so what?
“I wasn’t excited about that like I had been. I didn’t look forward to doing that all over again. So, I came home and drove a tractor for my brother. I could afford to then.
“My friend Dick had his kidney transplant and it failed. They just had to take it out. His wife called me. It was either March or April. She said Dick had taken himself off the dialysis machine and he had only ten days to live.
“At that point, he was at the V.A. hospital and would have to wait many years before he could get another kidney. He sent word that he wanted to see me, and I knew I just had ten days to get there.
“What do you say to a dying man? I told Floride I was going to the hospital to see Dick. That was maybe a Wednesday morning. On the way there, I met with minister Rick Belzer. ‘I’m going to see a dying man. What do I say?’
“Rick answered, ‘Grainger, do you mind if I say a prayer for you?’ At the time, I would have said I was a Christian, but I was just a churchgoer. I’ve never had a man do this but Rick touched me. He put his hand right on my shoulder and said a 3 or 4 sentence prayer.
“Finally, I walked into the hospital room and Dick was he was just a 6’ 4” bump in the sheet. He was reading the Bible. He looked up and saw me.
“’Grainger, Grainger,’ he said, ‘Come in. I’m so glad you came to see me.’
“Dick wouldn’t let me sit in a chair. He patted the bed beside him. ‘Sit right here,’ he said. I wasn’t there longer than fifteen minutes. He told me about his decision and he told me about the personal relationship he had with Jesus.
“Then he said, switching the conversation from him to me, ‘Grainger this is the hope I have for you. I’m so excited for what the Lord’s going to do.’
“I’d been hearing that sort of encouragement my whole life, but not from that direction. That just kept rolling through. ‘Grainger, I’m so excited for you.’
“I felt like I was in the post office and people were sorting the mail, but I couldn’t find a cubbyhole to put that in. I didn’t have any place to categorize it, so I just had to hold it. It was like Dick’s words were suspended in air.
“I was real uneasy, and said something silly and dumb like ‘good luck’ or ‘I think it’s time for me to go.’ It was just whatever you would blubber out. I was backing out of the room and Dick said, ‘Wait a minute. Lean down here, Grainger. You’re going to be alright.’
“All my hopes were centered on my work and myself, and here was a dying man who had something I didn’t have. I drove right by 261, a mile out of Charleston, and then I started crying. I still didn’t know what to do with it. Two days later, Dick died.
“A few days after that, I was home eating lunch all alone. Floride was at work, teaching French. I made a sandwich and put some strawberries on the table, but I was so restless that I had to do something besides just eat.
“I looked around for a Bible, but even if I had found one, I wouldn ‘t have known what to do with it. I hardly knew the Old Testament from the New Testament. Here I was, having gone to church most of my life and I still didn’t know anything.
“I kept looking for a Bible, but never found one. What I did find was a prayer book. Floride had started going to the Episcopal church and she had brought home The Book of Common Prayer. I happened to open it up to the Nicene Creed.
“I began to read, and something began to penetrate my spirit. When I finished reading it, I was a believer. It didn’t happen at a Billy Graham rally, but just there in my house with me all alone at the table. A peace came over me for the next few days and I’ve never quite gotten back to being that peaceful again. It was so real.
“A year later, Rick Belzer asked me to go to Cursillo. It is a religious retreat associated with the Diocese of Eastern North Carolina. That is where I met John. We studied and prayed and visited people in prison.
“Ever since that special lunch, my life has been a wonderful walk. It’s my true vocation and avocation.
Carving is not the center of my life anymore. It is not the product. It is just a vehicle. My work happens to put me into the lives of some very successful people and I love their applause, but I am not swept away with that or myself anymore.
“It keeps things in perspective to remember that when I work, I am just making something look like something it is not. If you scratch it, you change the surface. If I detach one of the feathers I made from a bird, there will be a void. If you detach one of the feathers God made, He will grow it a whole new feather. None of my birds ever grows a new feather. If that doesn’t bring you to your knees, then I don’t know what would.
“The greatest art in the world is not David’s Pieta or Michelangelo’s David. It is a changed heart. It’s when somebody’s walking this way and then they turn around and go the other way. It’s something internal, not external, but the external changes to point to the eternal.
“For me to have a relationship with a piece of wood is easy. If it doesn’t behave, I can throw it in the fireplace. The toughest relationships are with people. I work in solitude and it gives me time to think. Not long ago I was thinking about the end of life.
“When I’m on my deathbed, I won’t be asking Floride to go get my pocket knife so I can carve just one more bird. What I’ll be asking for is her hand. I won’t be asking for a relationship with a piece of wood. Well, if that’s gonna mean so much then, how about now? Hello. And that’s true with God, too. If I’m going to spend eternity with him, I need to be practicing now.”
The Nicene Creed
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.