Left Bertagnolli inside the Daphne History Museum. Right This grasshopper was the first bug Bertagnolli ever carved. Made of Honduras mahogany in 1977, this anatomically correct insect has won awards across the Gulf // Photos by Elizabeth Gelineau
Step into Pat Bertagnolli’s home in Daphne, and you’ll find bugs. Lots and lots of bugs.
“They’re all over the house,” he says. “They’re in just about every room.”
And not just insects. There are fish and crabs, too, all intricately carved by Bertagnolli, a tile seller by trade but a woodworking artist since he was just a little kid.
Now, 24 pieces by Bertagnolli, including several of his insects and fish, as well as a dragon and a set of three flowers, are on display at the Daphne History Museum.
The exhibit came after Bertagnolli’s wife, Glenda, put her foot down and told the artist his fans could no longer come view his pieces at their house.
“She said, ‘You’re going to stop people from coming here; this is our home,’” Bertagnolli says. “That’s the main reason it’s in the museum. When I take them out of the museum, they’ll never be on display again.”
Bertagnolli’s love of woodcarving dates to the 1950s, thanks to five older brothers who were in the Boy Scouts. “Back then, all of the scouts were carving neckerchief slides,” he recalls. “They’d bring them home, and I was seven, in the Cub Scouts and ended up doing it, too. That’s how I got started.”
And Bertagnolli, who turned 78 in August, never really stopped using his pocketknife to create art. “I did a number of things over the years, but I never left carving,” he says.
Early on, Bertagnolli’s work focused on wooden model airplanes, but one summer, the youngster found his first widespread fame carving small Tiki gods. “Everybody wanted one,” he says. “I stayed on the porch that we had and carved Tiki gods all summer while everyone else was goofing off. I sold them for 50 cents apiece, and I always had money in my pocket from doing that. Everybody who knew me knew I carved all the time.”
As Bertagnolli kept carving, his subject matter changed. He had always carved fish along with whatever else he was creating, but in 1988, he added insects to his collection.
“That’s the main thing I like to do now, and they’re big, but they’re lifelike,” he says. “I actually catch the species. I used to dip them in formaldehyde and set them out to dry, and I’d keep them there while I was carving.”
Bertagnolli’s pieces are not something he’d whittle in a matter of hours. Some of his pieces take months for him to complete. The self-taught artist uses natural wood, much of it mahogany and Spanish cedar remnants he gets from a local contractor. “The main thing is picking good wood,” the artist says. “I pick wood with a good grain, not a lot of knots and stuff.”
The Bertagnollis have three grown children, but while they were growing up, the artist would get to work once they were tucked in for the night.
“I carved most of the time at the kitchen table when the kids were in bed,” Bertagnolli says. “My wife would clear the area so she could put supper on the table, and afterward, I’d get started carving, and I’d carve way up in the night. There were times I stayed up all night carving and then went to work.”
Now, most every day, you can find Bertagnolli at Daphne’s May Day Park and Pier or another beach, carving at one of the picnic tables.
“People stop and watch me, and I’m fine with that, as long as they don’t say, ‘I think you need to do it this way,’” Bertagnolli says with a laugh. “I’m really fascinated that people are interested in what I do.”
Though Bertagnolli doesn’t sell his work, he has won a number of competitions and earned a legion of fans. One of those fans, a volunteer at the Daphne History Museum, suggested putting some of Bertagnolli’s work on display, which the museum did about a year ago.
“The original plan was to bring in mostly insects and then, after a period of time, change them for some of his fish,” says Rachel Burt, coordinator at the museum. “But now, the first batch is still here, and he has added many of his fish and other things to the display.”
Left A larger-than-life earwig carved of Honduras mahogany is Bertagnolli’s favorite bug he has ever created. Right The blue crab was carved in 1977 from red cedar with tiny bamboo antennae.
Pieces in the museum include a speckled trout, redfish, earwig, click beetle, leaf-footed stink bug and a desert skunk beetle he found in Arizona in 1989. Also on display is a black grasshopper, the first insect Bertagnolli carved back in 1977.
“At different times of the year, you’ll see different kinds of insects,” he says. “If I can catch them, I’ll bring them home. Insects are small, but I carve them the size I want them to be.” Some are more than a foot long.
And though insects and fish still top Bertagnolli’s list of subject matter, a chance encounter a few years ago ignited something new. A woman requested that Bertagnolli carve a flying heart for her. At first, he resisted, but she explained that she had been through a lot of abuse in her life and she wanted to put it on her wall to remind her of a place she was happy.
“I’ll tell you what,” Bertagnolli told her, “I’m going to carve it for you.”
“I wish you could have seen the joy on her face when I gave it to her,” he says of the heart carved out of red cedar and wings out of poplar. “She wanted to pay for it, but I said, ‘Ma’am, you don’t have enough money to give me to pay for this. If anything can give you any joy in life, I hope this will do it.’”
That’s how Bertagnolli looks at all his work and why he’s glad it’s in the Daphne History Museum.
“I just hope they can enjoy it,” he says. “I’m very proud of it and still surprised that people want to see it.”