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Updated Friday, November 30, 2012 at 01:01 PM

Leo Osborne carves out a life surrounded by birds and water

By Valerie Easton
Special to The Seattle Times

MILKWOOD STUDIO on Guemes Island is humming as Leo Osborne finishes his paintings of moonscapes and swans on gold leaf. "I've always had this winged thing," says Osborne of his eagles and owls, swans and doves.

Osborne's work is so integrated with his house and garden, it's difficult to know where stucco and flowers leave off and bronze birds begin. This multitalented artist has worked in a range of media — metal, wood, stone, paint, dirt and plants — for decades, yet he's still coming up with new enthusiasms. With his characteristic infectious energy, he waves his arms around at the art-lined walls. "All of this is evolution," he says of the lizards and doves, fantastically carved burls and anthropomorphic wood nymphs carved from downed branches he hauls home from island walks. There's even a self-portrait of an impish-looking Osborne, smoke from a golden Aladdin's lamp curling up to form the tip of his silver goatee.

Osborne, who started out on Cape Cod fashioning wooden signs, considers himself a woodcarver first. He went on to pin-striping cars, then to commercial art school in Boston. He first carved birds in wood, then learned to sand-cast them using an ancient Egyptian technique. He learned wax casting in Oregon and moved north to Guemes in the early 1990s because of a friendship with the sculptor Philip McCracken, who's lived on the island for years.

Osborne and his partner, Jane Lane, bought their property not far from the ferry dock 10 years ago. "We redid the place with color, joy and passion," says Osborne of the little house filled with art. He built on a light-filled studio and went to work on the garden.

Nothing was there when they bought the place "except grass and a hole covered up with a blue tarp," Osborne says of the now intensely planted half acre. He dug a deep pond that draws a tremendous number of birds from the nearby beach and wetlands. Old-fashioned flowers predominate, many grown from seed that friends around the world gave him. "We have so many volunteer plants from all the birds that visit," he says. "I've always favored the cottage garden look with clumps of bamboo for screening."

A sunroom, where Lane and Osborne meet for tea in the morning and a drink in the late afternoon, overlooks the garden. There's a tiny guesthouse, too, and a well house with greenhouse on the south side where Osborne gets an early start on seedlings.

Osborne named the place "Milkwood Studio" from a line in a Van Morrison song and a studio he had years ago in an old Darigold Milk building in Ellensburg. "It's an ever-changing museum around here," he says. Pieces go out to shows and sometimes come back to hang on walls or populate the garden. Their trajectories are tracked on a big chart updated by Lane, who also deadheads the garden. "Jane is a very orderly sort of person," says Osborne admiringly.

As for their home, studio and garden: "It's a 24/7 space to work and live."

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "petal & twig." Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

To see the work

Leo Osborne shows his work locally at the Howard/Mandville Gallery in Kirkland. Milkwood Studio on Guemes Island is open by appointment. Learn more at www.leoosborne.com.

Local news partner - Plant Talk

Valerie Easton writes in her blog about gardens and the people who make them.


MIKE SIEGEL / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Leo Osborne shows off "Redwing Blackbird," a piece he recently finished sanding and dying. Crystals are bursting from the bird's wing.




MIKE SIEGEL / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Leo Osborne's artistry continues out into the garden, with a pond he dug himself, his cast-bronze cormorant, and a profusion of his favorite cottage-garden flowers like hollyhocks, crocosmia, nasturtiums and Russian sage.




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