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The art of nature

Sherry Mays

One day in 1983 Bill Vrooman, a successful management consultant in Southern California, woke up with a gut feeling, a feeling so strong it was nauseating.

“My life has got to change,” he thought. “I cannot go back to work.”

Vrooman called his boss and said he no longer could work for the company. He found his home a retreat and with only a pocket knife and two wood chisels given to him as a gift, he carved a small, basic carving.

“I purged my system,” he said. “I got rid of my anger, and surprisingly, within 60 days I was paying my bills with wood carvings.”

Sixteen years later, he and wife Judith, have just passed the $1 million mark and have sold more than 4,000 pieces of carved artwork.

“It’s truly a success story,” Judith said. “It took us 15 years to build overnight success.”

Judith entered the partnership three years into Bill’s business. They met at an art show that Judith was coordinating in Long Beach. They met then and dated two additional times, the third date lasting 13 years.

“We couldn’t have been luckier,” Bill said.”We are partners in business and in life.”

Bill introduced Judith to the business of carving and he said her art background put the finishing touches on his work. Through research, both in bird and fish anatomy and physiology, Judith found a labor of love.

“I showed her patterns and she showed me (painting) technique,” Bill said.

Judith said she had to learn about painting three dimensional pieces compared to two-dimensional oil paintings.

She learned, and before long, Bill asked her to be a partner.

“Signing each piece was a big step,” Judith said. “It was almost overwhelming.”

The Vroomans were already living in Truckee when their partnership was complete. They said the guests at their Los Angeles “going away” party were surprised when Bill and Judith exchanged vows that same day.

“We camped in Truckee before we got married,” Judith said. “We burned through a lot of candles in our tent reading the Truckee historical books that we found at the grocery stores. We loved the area and the people and decided to call this home.”

The Vroomans reside in Glenshire on a sunny one-acre lot with their golden retriever Woody and thousands of birds. The birds that visit and reside on or near the property act as both friends and models for the Vroomans’ collection.

Judith, also known as the “bird lady,” maintains seven bird feeders and five bird baths, one of which is heated for winter bathing. She and Bill are gathering information on certain trees, flowers and bushes that will attract wild birds to establish a mini-sanctuary on their property.

“I have the best experiences with birds,” Judith said. “We use these experiences to build our artwork.”

Bill said the experiences are personal as is the artwork.

“Each of our birds stare you right in the eye,” Bill said. “It’s similar to the way wildlife interacts with you. Each experience is personal and can be related to.”

Walking into the studio on the lower floor of their home, one can feel the eyes of each bird follow every movement. It is a personal experience.

The birds currently in their studio range from hummingbirds to eagles.

“We will never run out of species to carve,” Bill said.

The Vroomans recreate birds only found in North America and generally from the West, but find new ideas from their East Coast collectors. Their collectors can be found in 32 states and three foreign countries.

“The best part of our story is that our collectors never buy just one piece,” Judith said. “They have been with us for years and enjoy our progression.”

Bill said collectors are demanding, but not as demanding as he and Judith can be on themselves.

The Vroomans’ schedule is rigid. Bill is out of bed by 5 a.m. and in his carving shop, once their garage, by 7 a.m. Judith goes to her painting studio, at the back of the home, shortly after Bill and both do not stop until 5 p.m.

“Bill is the motivator,” Judith said. “I would be out feeding my birds and planting bulbs all day long without his guidance.”

The Vroomans work 300 days a year and travel for about 120 of those.

“We have only about 50 days of downtime,” Bill said. “They are mostly the days after the art shows when I collapse. It takes a lot to get through a show.”

Their hard work pays off. They have contact with more than 750,000 people each year.

“We saw something once about married couples,” Judith said. “It showed the average time a married couple spends together. We now tell our friends that we have put in over 100 years of marriage with the time we spend together in the business and in our personal life. It’s 24 hours a day.”

Judith and Bill both agreed that they couldn’t be happier.

“We have made greatest friends with our neighbors and collectors,” Bill said. “Truckee has always been a great place to live.”

Through the years, the Vroomans have touched many people’s lives whether through friendship or business, and Bill said the stories they have are endless.

“I’m probably the worst at telling stories,” he said. “I find myself crying a lot.”

“Please Bill,” Judith said. “Don’t start, I just put on fresh makeup.”

Whether it’s about helping a neighborhood boy carve a fish or the thank-you letters from the Clintons, who receive an annual Christmas gift of a limited edition bird ornament, Judith and Bill get emotional when telling the stories.

“Everything about our business is personal,” Bill said.

One story involves their youngest collector who purchased her first piece of art at the age of 12.

“She saw a bird that she wanted when she was 10,” Judith said. “She saved for two years to buy her first fine art piece for $265.”

The Vroomans also carve fish and have invented their line of “Cabin Fever Lamps.”

The lamps were inspired by the 1992-93 winter.

“We were sick of shoveling snow and clearing off our roof,” Bill said. “We were inspired to try the lamps. It added some light to our dreary days.”

The fish carvings, that Bill said goes hand-in-hand with the birds, hold a special meaning for Bill.

“Put it this way,” he said. “I definitely carve more fish than I catch.”

The Vroomans won’t be out to catch fish anytime soon with the upcoming “Artour ’98” scheduled for July 10-12 throughout Truckee, Tahoe City and Incline Village.

“There are so many terrific artists in the area,” Judith said. “We are lucky to be a part of the tour with them.”

During the art tour, hundreds of art enthusiasts will visit the studios of more than 40 artists, of which the Vroomans are the only husband-wife team.

Sierra Sun E-mail: sun@tahoe.com

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