On Saturday morning, Michael Combs received life-changing news: The studio in Southold where he has worked for 18 years as a famed wood carver and sculptor was burning. All his tools were in the second-floor studio, along with works in progress for an upcoming show, decoys and other carvings, including at least one highly prized wood carving of a swordfish made by his grandfather, Capt. George Washington Combs.
“Looking around now, I feel I lost everything,” Mr. Combs said Tuesday afternoon, four days after the fire, as he picked his way through the ruins of his studio, which still reeked of smoke. Burnt insulation lay on the floor and hung from the walls and ceiling. Tool chests and a band saw were black from the flames. “When I first heard about it, I really sank,” he said, “but now I am beginning to come out of it.”
A passing motorist saw smoke coming from the building, located on the south side of Hummel Avenue, and called 911. A neighbor who was letting his dog out also noticed the smoke. Southold Fire Department responded around 7:44 a.m. and the fire was quickly extinguished, according to Southold Town police.
Mr. Combs, 49, is a fifth-generation artist who grew up on the North Fork and lives in Greenport. His grandfather and his people before him were all wooden decoy carvers on the South Shore of Long Island. His family’s carvings of ducks are among the finest ever made, and some are in the prestigious Shelburne Museum in Vermont. The museum’s website describes decoy carving as a uniquely American art form.
Michael Combs’ work is in the permanent collection of the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton. This is what the Parrish Art Museum website says of him: “The studio where Michael Combs works is redolent of wood — raw wood waiting to be stripped and cleaned, carved wood being oiled and polished, his great-grandfather’s skiff hanging from the rafters. Combs hails from a line of Long Island boatbuilders, decoy makers, fishermen, and market gunners who for five generations made their living on the Great South Bay. His skill at carving was evident from an early age …”
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As he made his way through the ruins of his studio, Mr. Combs pointed out objects to a visitor. On the floor were carvings of trophy deer heads, heavily smoke damaged. There, he said, that is the swordfish carved by my grandfather. He said the carving was originally made as a sign for a bait shop. Objects made by his father, Capt. Jack Combs, were also there, buried under the burnt debris.
In an adjacent building he showed the visitor the beginnings of what will be a walnut table he is making for a customer. Where his father and those before him were predominantly wooden decoy carvers, Michael Combs is a well-regarded sculptor as well, in this case of a long table, the foam model of which sits on a workbench.
He retrieved a water-soaked book about his art. The book describes his family’s remarkable history; they are, in many ways, like the famous Wyeth family of multi-generational artists from Pennsylvania. In one section of the book, Michael Combs says: “All my life I’ve been around people creating with their hands. I learned to carve decoy birds by osmosis — just watching my grandfather and father at work. By the time I was sixteen, I had basically turned my father’s workshop into my own studio.”
As he walks outside into the cold, wet afternoon, Mr. Combs points out what someone has written on the studio door: that, out of the ashes, a new life will arise. “Isn’t that great?” he said. “I don’t even know who did it.”
But, he added, it will be true.
Top photo caption: A fire destroyed the inside of well-known sculptor Michael Combs’ Southold studio Saturday. (Credit: Steve Wick)