FLORIDA KEYS -- And to think it all started with a case of the chicken pox.
David Wirth has traveled the world — fishing, hunting and exploring the great outdoors. But a near-death experience eventually led him to turn his passion for sculpting into a successful career in the Florida Keys.
A California native, Wirth describes himself as a "beach baby" with a constant desire to be fishing, diving or doing anything beside or on the water.
"I would spend at least 100 days out of the year fishing," he said.
A little more than 20 years ago, however, a unique case of chicken pox made it impossible for Wirth to do what he loved most.
"I was in recovery and I couldn't be around fish because of the bacteria," said Wirth. "I wanted to fish so bad, so I made my own fish and began sculpting.
"I used a tool in my tackle box, got a piece of wood and whittled out my first rainbow trout — all from memory," he said."
That was the beginning of Wirth's career as a hardwood sculptor, though his artistic passion dates back to his childhood.
"When I would get in trouble as a child and my parents would send me to my room, I would get my X-Acto knife and start carving into the headboard on my bed," said Wirth.
His artistic talent and passion came naturally to him, with no formal schooling or training — a rarity for such complex work.
Currently an Islamorada resident, Wirth owns and operates The Gallery of Wildlife Art at mile marker 88.9 oceanside. He specializes in hardwood, bronze and stone sculptures, and has his own jewelry line crafted from unusual materials such as antlers, gator bones and walrus tusks.
Wirth's intricate and mesmerizing sculptures include everything from a 72-inch-long hanging marlin to a 40-inch standing sailfish. He also takes commissions from patrons seeking a true one-of-a-kind piece for their collection.
In addition, Wirth creates a variety of custom furniture pieces including tables, benches and picture frames. All are made from local hardwoods such as wild tamarind, mahogany and Jamaican dogwood.
A change in the California art market inspired Wirth's move to Islamorada several years ago, and he calls the move extremely successful. During his three years in the sport fishing capital, sales have exceeded his expectations every year.
Like many Florida Keys artists, Wirth is inspired by his surroundings.
"I'm a real outdoorsman," he said. "If I see a marlin, I'll jump in the water and study it for a sculpture rather than trying to study a dead fish."
Observing fish in their natural habitat is crucial to his artistry.
"The social habits are important for my artwork," he explained. "I like looking at the social interactions, fin positions, exploring fish in the water."
As with other Florida Keys residents pursuing their passions, Wirth doesn't view his everyday routine as work.
"Twelve hours of carving in the studio — that's not work to me," he said.
After living in more than 20 states and visiting many counties around the world, Wirth exhibits a deep appreciation for the Florida Keys and finds the island chain unlike anywhere else.
"I could write a full 10-chapter book on a four-hour backcountry fishing trip; it is so incredible," he said. "The qualities and quantities of species of fish here, the topography, the mangroves — it's this quiet beautiful place that, if you take the time every day, you can enjoy a piece of reality that is often forgotten."
Marine life artist David Wirth displays a wooden carving of one of his authentic circle hooks, which are considered to carry the spirit of the one who carved it and the spirit of what it is made from. Image: Andy Newman
Wirth fashions each of his sculptures from bronze, stone and wood including Keys hardwoods, but uses logs collected only from "blow down" trees that have fallen because of weather.
A California native, Wirth describes himself as a "beach baby" with a constant desire to be fishing, diving or on the water.