A WOODEN bird flies from a thread. A great pelican with human breasts stands on its single foot. A mer-bird with fishes tail, seems to struggle to lift off from its stand. On the bookshelf: a bird of wire, a bird of stone. . .
"Wings! I feel like a bird! Don't know why. It just came with me."
Berthold Schmutzhart shows a model of the glider he built and flies in when the weather is good. He brings out some snapshots, handing them over slowly because he can't take his eyes off the elegant planing dihedral wings, hawk wings, sleek and white. On the bureau in his tiny apartment his sky-diving chute is carefully laid out.
"I have a friend who runs a sky-diving school. I got this chute cheap for $140 because it's made of leftovers. It's all patches. White, orange, pink, olive . . . you can always see me coming down."
He's only done 18 jumps. But then, he's 53. He built his first glider in his native Austria at 14, had some pals launch him off a hilltop with giant rubber bands.
. . . a steel Christ, three stories high, with his arms raised and his hands curved out like wings . . . a crucified Christ bent out like a bow, yearning to break free and fly . . .
Schmutzhart has taught sculpture at the Corcoran since 1963. The first years after his arrival from Austria in 1958 he taught high school in Bethesda. He still thinks we make a mistake to keep the best teachers "at places like Whitman High for kids who don't need them, instead of sending them to the inner city." Working with disadvantaged children has been one of the driving forces in his life, from the years after World War II in Germany when he helped teach thousands of war-shattered refugee children from all over Eastern Europe. Most of them knew no German.
"They hated our guts. They hated all Germans. We used lots of languages to reach them: Latin, physics and math, the language of numbers, music. We made musical instruments together." On his wall hangs a skillfully made rebec, an early violin, built by a student.
He has carried on the work in this country, concentrating on children who have trouble learning. When a friend's child with a learning disability couldn't get into any school in the area, "we just made one." The result was the Lab School of Washington.
. . . a bird aircraft carrier with small birds on its back . . . a trumpet-playing bird . . . birds with two feet . . . birds with one foot . . . a gorgeous gull taking off, its wings fanned, carved from a blackened old piling that still smells of the sea . . .
Schmutzhart learned sculpting from a glider instructor during the war, later became a woodcarver. Assigned to help restore Medieval churches near Salzburg, he replaced a lost statue by carving one himself, not a fake, he is careful to add, but a clearly modern saint done in the old style. He has a study he did for it in his apartment. He carved it in two days.
"Making birds is my cure for my troubles. Instead of going to a shrink. My psychiatrist friends have a great time with my work. I see a bird stuck in the wood and I chip a little and it comes out. The wood guides you, it talks back. Steel doesn't talk."
He loves wood. He has published a book on woodcraft.
His bookcase is full of books on art, engineering, flying. He reads Saint-Exupery, the first poet of human flight. Some of his birds are so big you can't see them all at once so he puts focus points on them, bugs, spiders. His 26-foot Christ on a Detroit church facade is designed to stand 120-mph gusts. He made a flying man whose body is a riveted aluminum fuselage. "A flight captain bought it, but his wife didn't like it and a couch stood in the only place he could put it. He threw out the couch but kept the wife."
Schmutzhart is separated from his Thai wife, Slaithong, also a sculptor, who lives nearby. His apartment is crowded but neat. A chainsaw in the kitchenette. The carved saint. The flying suit. Birds everywhere.
. . . birds packed beak to claw in giant sardine cans . . . birds staring at the beetle on their knee . . . sad birds . . . wise birds . . . silly birds . . . dancing birds . . .