COMMUNITY—For a dozen years, one of the most frequently spotted sights at the Jerry Brown Arts Festival (JBAF) has been smiling shoppers carrying around colorful and decorative birdhouses made by artist Ray Dutton of Moulton, Ala.
Dutton is being honored in 2020 as the featured artist for the 18th Annual JBAF, set for Saturday and Sunday, March 7 and 8, at Tombigbee Electric Cooperative in Hamilton, Ala.
To mark this special achievement, Dutton was asked to share some of the history behind his popular birdhouses, provide a few details on his most popular styles, and give us a sneak peek at what’s new this year.
Becoming a Birdhouse Builder
Dutton was working in the construction field, helping to build houses, when one of his customers asked him if he would build a birdhouse for her sister.
The lady and her sister were both delighted with the outcome, so Dutton decided to build another one. Before long, his weekend hobby of selling his birdhouses along the side of the road near friendly business locations, grew into something more.
After several of the people stopping by to purchase birdhouses told him he needed to “go to so-and-so festival,” he and his wife, Diane, decided to take their advice.
When a few festivals a year turned into participating in dozens annually, Dutton gradually began to decrease his construction jobs and focus all his time and attention on birdhouses.
The Festival Circuit
The Duttons have been traveling the festival circuit for 20 years.
“We’ve been to a lot of places,” he said. “”We’ve been as far north as Virginia and as far south as Gulf Shores. We’ve been all over Alabama, and many locations east and west of the state.”
And Dutton is not just popular at the JBAF. He’s won prizes at numerous festivals throughout the southeast. These include first-place honors at TroyFest (Troy) and Art in the Park (Jasper), and second-place finishes at the 911 Festival (Haleyville) and the Fayetteville Dogwood Festival (Fayetteville).
As for their favorite part of being in the birdhouse business, Dutton said he and his wife enjoy the traveling and seeing all of the friends they’ve made at the festivals. “Of course, the money comes in handy, too,” he said. “If the birdhouses didn’t sell, we couldn’t do it.”
For most of the last two decades, the couple attended as many as 32 to 35 shows a year. Recently, they decided to scale back and focus on the top 12 to 16 festivals.
“We’re getting a little bit of age on us and it’s a little bit harder and tougher than it used to be,” Dutton said. “It’s easier now than it was, but we still keep plenty busy. We picked out some of our best shows and we’re sticking with them.”
Dutton explained that festival artists work all week on their craft, then drive 200 or 300 miles to attend the events. “You set up the day you get there and kind of sleep with one eye open in a place you’re not used to,” he said. “You work hard for two or three days and then it’s time to load up and drive home. After all that, you’re pretty much worn out.”
JBAF is Among the Best
JBAF fans of “The Birdhouse Man” are surely pleased that the Northwest Alabama Arts Council-hosted event remains on his list.
“The JBAF is one of our best festivals,” he noted. “We enjoy it and they have a big variety of artists. We’ve made a lot of friends there and we get to see them, too.
“We also like the Tombigbee location. It’s a good place and a nice building. It’s easy to get in and out of and it’s easy to load in and then unload afterwards. And the people that run the show are friendly. We’re thankful to the arts council for selecting us as the featured artists this year.”
JBAF 2020 T-shirts Feature Ray Dutton Birdhouses And Were Designed By Sassy Frass Tees Of Hamilton, Ala., Working From Photos Of Birdhouses Purchased At Previous Festivals By Former Northwest Alabama Arts Council President And Arts Festival Co-Creator Tyna Pyburn.
Reasonably Priced Art
Dutton was asked why he thinks his birdhouses are such a big hit.
“I don’t really know,” he said. “A lot of people like the bright colors and how we’ve decorated them. But I think our prices help a lot. We try to keep the prices reasonable, so people can afford them and we can make a little bit on them.”
A standard, small birdhouse that you can nail to the top of a fence post or to the side of a storage building will cost you $10.
Another popular smaller size, which he and his wife call a “Tall Tin,” is a taller birdhouse, with a steeply-pitched roof. Tall Tins cost $27, with posts running $12.
Larger, more detailed, birdhouses, such as church-style birdhouses with crosses at the top, are $43. Larger posts cost $15.
But these are not just any posts, Dutton’s poles come with plates on the top, with pre-drilled holes for four screws to fit through the plates on the bottom of the birdhouses. There’s also rebar on the bottom of the posts to make them easy to put up.
He also has plenty of birdhouses already affixed to poles to select from or he can put together your selection of birdhouse and pole on the spot. “Most of the time, people buy a post with their Tall Tins, so all they have to do is take them home and stick them in the ground,” he said.
The couple also bring plenty of extra decorations with them, so customizations are possible. “If someone likes a particular house, but wants a different decoration, we can change it out for them,” he said.
Some of the decorations are mermaids, lovebirds, butterflies, anchors, hummingbirds, frogs, pigs and cows.
“We also have some stained birdhouses, in lighter and darker stains, for people who like stained wood,” he said. Decorations can also be mixed and matched according to preference on the stained birdhouses.
Dutton said his favorite birdhouses to make are his churches, with his churches and his Tall Tins being the best sellers.
“I make four styles of churches; a larger size, two smaller sizes and then one that’s a little bit different from the others for those who want something different,” he said. “All the churches are painted white. A lot of people like the churches. I guess they’re kind of personal to people.
“The Tall Tins are really colorful, ranging from turquoise, yellow, blue, and peach to a loud green. One style has a picket fence and another style has a wall on each side. We also have a red one that my wife puts a rooster on and paints red and yellow, and it’s really pretty.”
Other birdhouse themes include barns, cabins, moose heads, and waterwheels. He has one type called a swing, with four separate birdhouses at four different heights, surrounded by a fence, and featuring, of course, a little swing.
Besides birdhouses, he also builds bird feeders, butterfly houses, bat houses and carpenter bee traps. “Birdhouses are our main thing, but we usually bring one or two of the others for people who request them,” he said.
Artist Ray Dutton Is Shown Holding His Favorite Style Of Birdhouse To Build, A Church Birdhouse. Dutton’s Churches Are Also Among His Best-Selling Styles.
New for 2020
With so many birdhouses circulating throughout the festival every year, what do Dutton’s customers say when they see him again?
“They’ll say, ‘Well, we have one of everything you make, you need to come up with something different,'” he explained. “So, we always try to come up with something fresh every year.”
Making their JBAF debut will be two items; a different style of butterfly house that Dutton started creating recently, as well as his newest inspiration, a school bus birdhouse.
“The school bus has wheels on it and I put a hood on it to look like a real school bus, but it’s actually a birdhouse,” he said. “It’s pretty and I think it’s going to be a winner.
“We also have some birdhouses that we’ve been selling since we started and they still sell very well. I’m pretty sure we’ll have something you can take to the house with you.”
Ray And Diane Dutton Hold The Two Newest Models Of Their Popular Birdhouses, A School Bus And A Butterfly House, With A Church And A Barn Model Also Shown. The Couple Will Make Their 12th Appearance At The Jerry Brown Arts Festival On March 7-8 In Hamilton, Ala., As The Featured Artists.
Birdhouse Holes are Bluebird-Sized
Dutton’s birdhouses are designed for Bluebirds, with 1 ½-inch holes, because those are the houses most people ask for. He has also made marlin houses by order, which require a bigger opening. His birdhouses also come with a built-in cleaning mechanism, called a cleanout.
“A lot of people like to clean their Bluebird houses out,” he noted.
In his own yard, he has four birdhouses and one bird feeder. “We love Bluebirds and we have several of them around here,” he said.
When he first started building birdhouses, Dutton said his wife fell in love with each new model. “She’d say, ‘Oh, I love that one. I want that one,'” he noted.
Dutton always put her newest favorite up in the yard for a while.
He’s also had a customer go through his workshop and look at all the birdhouses and then decide that they really wanted one from his yard. And even though it’d been nicely weathered for a year, she still had her heart set on it. So, he sold it. That’s what he does. He can always build another.
Diane Dutton Adds Lettering To The Side Of A School Bus Birdhouse. The Lettering Goes On The Stop Sign Side Of The Bus, While The Other Side Features The School Bus Door. A Hood And Headlights Help Round Out The Theme.
Four frequent visitors to the Dutton workshop are the couple’s grandchildren, three boys and one girl, ranging in age from 4 to 13. The Duttons have been married 43 years and were blessed with grandchildren from their two sons and spouses.
“Our grandkids love to come in the shop and build,” he said. “They also like to paint for a little while. When they’re in there, my wife and I aren’t doing much building, we’re watching them.”
For persons wishing to build their own birdhouses as family projects, Dutton stresses safety. “Watch your children with saws and stuff,” he said. “I haven’t lost a finger yet, but I’ve come close. And sometimes, things can ricochet. I’ve had my cap knocked off. Things happen. Be careful.”
He also noted that birdhouses can be decorated any way you like. “If a child wanted to make a birdhouse for his father, and if his father enjoys deer hunting, he could put a little deer on it.”
Dutton has also built some more elaborate birdhouses, including a two-story model, with stairs on the exterior, porches and even television antennas.
“You’d think you were outside looking at a big house,” he said. “But I don’t make these anymore except by order. They take so much time. And even though they’re real pretty, people want to see a price. I think most people have an idea of what they want to spend.
“There’s a lot of labor in a house like that and you really can’t get enough for them for your labor.”
And, although they like traveling and reunions with other festival artists, Dutton noted that birdhouse building is still a business like any other.
“I’ve had people ask me where I work,” he said. “I’ll say, ‘Well, this is my job here’ or ‘This is what I do.’ And they’ll say, ‘Oh, you don’t have a job.’ But, I’m thinking, ‘Yes, I have a job.’
“I do this all the time. A lot of the people who’ve never done something like this don’t realize what goes into it before you are at a show. They don’t know the work involved before we make it to the festival itself.
“We are out in the shop two to three months, just getting ready before all the festivals begin. I have to build ahead of time or I couldn’t keep up.
“Sometimes, we only have two or three days at home between festival weekends. So, it’s a lot better to have the birdhouses built already than have to make them then.”
Wood Chips Fly Through The Air As Artist Ray Dutton Drills Out The 1 ½ Inch Hole For A Bluebird-Sized Birdhouse At His Workshop In Moulton, Ala.
Dutton makes 6 to 10 birdhouses at a time, depending on which style he’s creating. His process begins with cutting out all of the parts.
He then builds the houses one by one. The second step is painting. After the paint dries, he adds the tin tops. And then it’s decoration time.
“My wife helps with the painting and decorating,” he said. “And she does all of the paperwork,” he added, giggling.
If he had to time his efforts for a single smaller house from start to finish, Dutton said it would take approximately an hour and a half. Bigger houses double that time, requiring at least three hours.
Dutton makes most of his birdhouses out of treated, dog-eared fence boards, but he sometimes uses red cedar. He said these types of wood seem to weather better than others.
He usually purchases his wood materials new, but he’s also had people give him used boards when they’re tearing down a fence or storage shed.
He uses rusty old tin for some of the birdhouse roofs, as that’s what his customers prefer. “Old tin just looks better,” he said. “We’ve tried new tin, but it’ll cost you an arm and a leg. We get our tin from old buildings, chicken houses and barns.”
Dutton said he uses color exterior paints and buys them at his local Walmart. He gets his wood stains at Lowe’s or similar stores. “We shop around,” he said.
You can visit Dutton’s booth, along with more than 50 other artists, at the family-friendly, free arts festival, which is always held the first weekend in March. Hours on Saturday, March 7, are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on Sunday, March 8, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Shuttle service and food vendors will also be available.
The Tombigbee Electric Cooperative is located at 3196 County Road 35, just a short distance from Exit 14 on Interstate 22. Look for the Hamilton water tower and you’re there!
For more information, visit JBAF.org.
(Photo Credits: All photos by Marla Minter, courtesy of the Northwest Alabama Arts Council.)
NOTE: American Risk Managers’ Marketing Director Chazz Hirschfeld was asked to write an article about Ray Dutton for the 18th Annual Jerry Brown Arts Festival. She wrote this feature story and a shorter press release with much joy. Chazz is a long-time member of the Northwest Alabama Arts Council. She loves promoting the arts festival, the arts council and her community.