It's the little things ...

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Don Van Horn's Lakewood studio smells like fresh cut wood but sounds like a dentist's office.

Van Horn leans into his work, squinting through a magnifying glass, and slides the last bit of rough edge off the tail feathers of a small, wooden goldfinch. He uses a dentist's grinding tool instead of a larger Dremel tool.

Any vibration would break the fragile welded brass branch that Van Horn crafted for the little bird to perch on.

The delicacy of the task has Van Horn, an engineer at Coors by day, completely engrossed.

To the piece he titled, "Cold Winter's Day," Van Horn added rounded wooden milkpods, burst open, just as they would be in mid-winter.

Indoors in the Wild Horse Gallery, "Cold Winter's Day" looks surreal and out of place. A sign reading "Do Not Touch" catches the viewer just in time. Is it possible that the bird is really made of wood or that the stick and the milkpods actually are carved and not just taken from nature?

Van Horn, 51, has been sculpting and carving since he was 15. He is a perfectionist. According to the rules of the World Wildfowl Carving Championships, the elite competition in Van Horn's chosen art form, everything in an entered piece must be something that it is not.

You can't use a real stick; you have to make a stick. A rock cannot be an actual rock. It must be carved.

"Everything has to be contrived and made," Van Horn said. "That's part of the art form.

"When the judges look at my pieces, they always argue that (parts of it) aren't carved because they look so real. For me, that's part of the challenge."

The subculture of bird carving is derived from the days of antique decoy making, Van Horn said. "It's kind of a folk art."

As Van Horn became more entrenched in the world of bird carving, he was surprised by how many people were interested in it and by the numbers of collectors, particularly on the East Coast, he said.

More than 3,000 carvers enter the world bird-carving competition every year.

"I'm slightly biased, but I think this is one of the hardest art forms there is. You not only have to be able to sculpt, but you have to sculpt with wood.

"With wood, you only get one opportunity. If you mess up, you have to throw it away."

The artist also needs a deep knowledge of the anatomy of birds.

"You can't have the wrong number of feathers," Van Horn said. "So I am always studying books, pictures and dead birds. I go to the Museum of Natural History."

Once the carving is done, the hard part begins.

"The birds are painted with fine, thin washes -- thin layers of paint," he said. "To master that takes a long time.

"I'm very honored when I meet some of my peers."

At the World Wildfowl Carving Championships, Van Horn won four "Best of Show" awards in his class.

At the end of the championships, 15 of the best carvers in the world vie for a $20,000 first prize. On two occasions, Van Horn placed fourth.

Van Horn said that the carving aspect of his life perfectly balances his career as the engineer in charge of utilities for Coors.

"I have two different lives," he said. "I have my engineering life which is very stressful and very dangerous. Carving and art has always been an outlet for me."

Because he doesn't have to rely on a paycheck from his art, "it isn't about the money. It's about me creating something that I truly love."

Van Horn's work is part of the Wild Horse Gallery's second annual Holiday Miniature Show.

The show features small works by many of the Wild Horse Gallery's artists.

Other artists include Denver oil painter Michael Untiedt, sculptor and oil painter Hollis Williford, work by artists Greg Effinger, Pat Zabel, Karen Schulman and Rich Galusha and jewelry by jewelers Karl Hoffman, Ron Pearl, Sarah Buckles and Kate Potyen.

"This show seemed like a good idea for the Christmas season," gallery owner Shirley Stocks said.

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