Appalachian Artist Blends Sight And Sound To Create Award-Winning Turkey Calls
In many art competitions your work has to look good. But there’s at least one competition where your art has to sound good, too.
West Virginia artist Brian Aliff has turned his passion for painting the wild turkey into prize-winning decorative turkey calls. These functional works of art are fast becoming collectors items. But growing up in Bluefield, in the coal country of southern West Virginia, it took a while for Aliff to think of himself as an artist.
Out in the woods, where turkeys had been earlier in the day, Aliff picked up a small wooden instrument with a hinged lid, known as a turkey call. With a rhythmic cadence, he rocked the lid back and forth, creating a sound that mimicked the yelp of a hen, trying to find her flock.
“That right there?" he said. "That’s classic. That’s classic turkey."
Aliff grew up hunting with his grandfather, but is largely self-taught in all his outdoor skills. He showed aptitude for art at an early age, drawing a mural with crayons on his mother’s living room wall.
“That almost cut my career off right there,” Aliff joked.
Not Too Pretty To Hunt With
Aliff opened a bag containing five or six other calls of three or four varieties: one-sided and two-sided box calls, scratch box calls, and pot calls. Each was custom-made and painted with an intricate hunting scene.
“If I had a nickel for every time someone said ‘these are too pretty to hunt with,’ I’d be rich,” Aliff said.
His speciality, and his niche among those who collect calls, are his pot calls. They’re about the size and shape of a snuff can.
“Old-timers used to call them slate calls ‘cause they were made out of slate,” he said. “And then people started experimenting with different surfaces. There’s some guys who make them out of titanium.”
He was particularly proud of one call where he used different native woods, detailed a turkey with an etching technique known as scrimshaw, and incorporated two soundboards.
“I have a crystal surface on the front and the sound board underneath it is slate,” Aliff said.
He put a short stick with a flared tip--called a striker--against the crystal and made short, jerking strokes. The call made the sound of a purring turkey. Then he flipped it and played the slate surface, so the sound bounced off the crystal and gave a deeper purring sound.
“So it sounds like two different turkeys,” he said. “You get two different sounds.”
Journey from Steel Shop to House of Art
“I didn’t set out to be a callmaker,” said Aliff. “I’m an artist first. I painted on feathers.”
And yet, Aliff said he never called himself an artist ”ever, in my life” before he met Gary Bowling. Bowling, also of Bluefield, West Virginia, was a nationally recognized artist. He had returned to Bluefield to establish a gallery and nonprofit studio — Gary Bowling’s House of Art — with the goal of encouraging and promoting the work of Appalachian artists.
Gary said he was amazed at Brian’s talent when he saw the painted feathers.
“I said, ‘Oh my gosh you’re more of an artist than I would ever hope to be,’” Bowling recalled.
Bowling pointed out that Aliff didn’t have a background in art. He was a steelworker, fabricating structures for coal processing plants.
“Brian has not been to an art institution,” Bowling said. “He has really not been trained to do what he does. To me it’s the purest form of art that you can be.”
Aliff doesn’t stiffen or spray the feathers before he paints them, Bowling said. And he uses an extremely delicate brush about about the width of three eyelashes.
“He literally combs the feathers out, naturally, lets ‘em lay, and his hand is so delicate that he paints on them naturally," Bowling said. "And I find it amazing, how he can put paint to that.”
Aliff’s trademark pieces are the pot calls with a painted turkey feather under the glass. Some are painted with minute details including the iridescent colors of a bird puffing his chest.
So how did Aliff go from painting turkey feathers to crafting turkey call boxes? He was looking for other places to show his work. And he thought the National Wild Turkey Federation convention would be a good place to start. He thought about painting pre-made turkey call boxes. But it was not cost-effective.
“I went in the woodshop and trial and error and in two months I’d made up my first dozen calls, and entered their decorative call competition in a painted box class,” he said. And in that first competition, he won second prize nationally.
But to win in the decorative classes, Aliff said the calls also have to place high in sounding like a turkey. He has proven he is as much of a sound artist as a visual artist.
Playing for the Turkey
He constructs his calls much like an instrument maker. Different types of wood affect the sound quality.
“Cedar’s hard to beat," he said. "It just sounds turkey."
Picking up a call, he made a clucking sound, then a purring sound, then paused. “I can tell the frequency or whatever it is, if I feel that thump down in my eardrum, in my inner ear.” If it thumps, he said, "I know it’s a killer call. I can feel it."
Aliff knows different hunters, like different musicians, prefer different sounds in their instruments.
“I gravitate toward rasp. I like raspy calls," he said. "It’s like Tanya Tucker. She’s got a little husky rasp in her voice.”
But the bottom line, he said, is what the turkey wants. “It’s what the turkey likes,” he said.
Native Heritage Guides Artistry
Aliff builds his calls in an unheated workshop. His grandfather built it from trees he timbered and milled himself. The lathe Aliff uses to shape his pot calls was his grandfather’s.
The family has native heritage, either Shawnee or Cherokee, just a few generations back. “The native people understood that you don’t waste anything,” Aliff said. Almost all the wood he uses to make his calls is local salvaged wood -- American wormy chestnut, black walnut, cedar, mineral poplar.
“And with the feathers, you know to create the art, on the feather, it’s like a tribute to that animal giving its life for you to have yours,” Aliff said.
Many of the orders Aliff receives are for custom-made, personalized calls.
“This guy wants an old truck that’s on his granddaddy’s farm, and it’s where he killed the best bird he ever killed. He wants a scene to kinda depict that,” Aliff said. "It’s custom—it’s personalized to that guy."
In Aliff’s collection of calls there was one that stood out as different from all the rest. It had a pink camouflage pattern painted on the box. But the lid was screwed shut. That’s because it was a baby rattle that Aliff made for his first granddaughter. He says when she gets older, if she wants to go turkey hunting, he’ll remove a screw, the lid will hinge, and the turkeys will hear cluck, cluck, cluck, scrrrrraaaape, scrrrrraaaape, purrrrr, purrrrr.
Aliff’s work is featured in George Denka’s 2013 Turkey Call Collector’s Guide and he is also listed among the American Turkey Call Makers.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council. The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.