Born in 1957 in Marinette, WI, Larry Barth developed a keen interest in wildfowl art from a young age. Though not a bird carver, Larry’s father was a woodworker who carved in Swiss and German traditions. Larry’s mother and two of her sisters were avid bird watchers. With these influences surrounding him, and inspired after seeing Edward Marshall Boehm porcelain sculptures in the early 1970s, Barth began carving birds out of wood as an adolescent. He sold his first bird for 25¢.
Barth later attended Carnegie Mellon University, where he studied graphic design and was heading toward a degree in illustration. That changed when, during the fall of his freshman year, his family visited a Ward Museum show. There Barth realized that he was not the only one interested in carving birds; it was an “eye opening” experience for him. Following this, Barth worked toward entering the 1976 World Competition, his first time at Worlds. Though he would have welcomed advice and guidance in these formative years, in hindsight Barth has remarked that he was fortunate to have begun to carve before seeing others do it too; it meant he would not have to follow “a prescribed set of guidelines.” His work has remained recognizably unique throughout the course of his career, and he has blazed many trails within the field.
After Barth’s early, indelible experiences at the Ward Museum and World Competition, he decided that he wanted to carve wildfowl for the rest of his life. He tailored his major at Carnegie Mellon to support his intention to carve birds, and he took classes on avian anatomy, sculpture, color, design, and other subjects that would further his intellectual and creative skills.
Today Barth’s creative process is one built around conceptual design, often drawing on inspiration from the natural world surrounding his Stahlstown, PA home. He balances the quality of a given bird with elements of the environment in which he places it—for example robust Bohemian Waxwings with robust sumac, and delicate Cedar Waxwings with delicate pussy-willow branches. Once Barth determines what species of bird will best support a given concept or quality he conducts careful field observations, and often visits bird-banding stations for hand-held observations. From these, Barth establishes a working knowledge of the physical attributes and natural environments associated with a given bird. Then Barth typically creates preliminary sketches and makes a clay model where he depicts the posture and environment that he seeks to achieve with the final carving. It is only after many dedicated hours of careful observations and construction of models that Barth embarks on carving and painting his pieces.
Larry Barth has stated that over the years the carving process has become “relatively routine” for him. He has become somewhat comfortable with carving; nevertheless painting has remained a challenge. In Barth’s words, painting “is a rollercoaster ride.” He says:
"After spending so much time and getting it exactly how you wanted, then you go to paint it. A few days into the painting is when I realize that it simply isn’t going to come out the way I had hoped, and I feel like I’ve simply ruined it. And all seems lost, but I struggle on. I keep going. … I think the lowest lows and the highest highs in the whole process for me are both tied to the painting stage." (Personal communication 19 June 2015 and interview 27 April 2014 with Larry Barth by Kristin Sullivan)
Perhaps because of this special effort, it is Barth’s painting that captivates much of his audience’s attention.
Just as each bird representation that Barth creates is unique, so too are the “non-bird” components that set his pieces apart. Barth is expert at balancing a bird’s form and color in its environment, without adding anything unnecessary—whether positioning birds on branches, on ferns, or in water. 2015 Living Legend and 14-time Best in World winner Pat Godin told the Ward Museum that Barth is “the master of simplicity.” Godin states that despite simplicity, or more likely because of it, Barth is “incredible at communicating things” in sculpture; he “takes away anything unnecessary” and leaves the feeling or essence of a natural scene.
This ability to convey information and emotions through his art so elegantly has set Barth apart from much of his field. He has pushed the progression of the art form as a master of design and execution. Yet, Barth has remained accessible and helpful to his fellow carvers, making himself available to examine and critique others’ carvings and art at competitions, well articulating what he has learned and developed over the years.
Barth's award-winning work has been shown at museums and in private collections around the country, as well as internationally. In 2015 Barth won his 16th Best in World title at the annual Ward World Championships.