A harbor on Long Island Sound serves as a wellspring of creativity for a renowned American folk artist.

By Kathy Calnen
September 03, 2008
Kindra Clineff

Puttering around in his skiff on an October morning, sculptor Tom Langan recalls boyhood days spent fishing, crabbing, and lobstering the waters of Roslyn Harbor, New York. This place was his childhood playground, and his mother had a premonition that his attachment to it was more than just a boy being a boy. "She used to tell me I was born to play," Tom remembers. Mom knew best, it turns out. Tom's close encounters with wildlife—herons, egrets, and saltwater fish, just to name a few—helped his future art career take flight.

The takeoff wasn't completely smooth. Like many earlier American folk artists, Tom honed his craft out of necessity. While working as a hunting guide in his 20s, he needed better decoys, so he made them himself. "I've followed down the dusty road of folk artists who were self-taught," he says. "I was always drawn to the mystique of the old. You could almost smell the moss on the decoys when they aged. They had history, and that's what excited me."

Once collectors noticed his work's fine detail, they quickly bought up his carved birds. At age 35, Tom left a utility construction career and became a full-time artist working out of a rented space at a Brooklyn furniture factory. After 20 years of commuting to the city, he built a studio next to his home, a circa-1860 former boathouse on Roslyn Harbor.

At first glance, the space could be confused with a room in a natural history museum. Chipping away at an eagle's wing, Tom describes how he uses air-driven cutting and grinding tools to shape sections of 50-year-old red cedar poles (formerly roadway light poles). Special pieces are then finished with traditional handwork using rasps, shaving tools, and carving knives.

Tom reserves the best views of the harbor for his upstairs painting studio. There, in a space filled with a flock of finished sculptures, he uses oil paints to apply as many as eight different coats in various shades. Sometimes he puts an additive in the paint to promote peeling and add patina—his secret formula that makes many people do a double-take. Are the birds real or fake? You have to look twice to be sure.

Tom's whistling swan is in the permanent collection of New York City's American Folk Art Museum, a pair of his egrets migrated to Russia in a traveling exhibit, and his lemons and limes topped a hand-carved Absolut vodka bottle in a celebrated advertising campaign.

Sportfishermen collect Tom's saltwater fish carvings. His shorebirds and roosters dwell in both contemporary and traditional homes. Wife Penny jokes, "Some people have told us they're thinking of adding a Tom Langan room."

His creatures have been described at galleries and folk art shows as wearing smiles. "People would say, 'They're very happy,'" he says. "And I'm a very happy guy, so I think that's a great compliment."

For more, call 516/621-3882 or visit thomaslangan.com.

Also: Check out more of Tom's sculptures.