Pa. sculptor has a talent for turtles


Tom McFarland said he worked hard for 25 years trying to be the guy who sculpts sea turtles - to be nationally known as "the turtle guy."

He succeeded.

Tom's turtles, made in the Tom's Turtles studio in his Polktown Road home, can be found all over the world. They're in museums, zoo gift shops, on T-shirts, in scientific exhibits, art galleries and nature centers. They serve as illustrations in scientific and general journals and publications.

Working in a small studio in a backyard building, he crafts his turtles from clay and fiberglass, using dental tools and tools he invented.


His turtles are actual size and are finished to the most exact natural detail.

"Each one is exactly right," he said. "See these four postocular scutes (scales) on this baby green sea turtle. Live ones have four in the back of each eye," he said, as he painstakingly drew the scales on a baby turtle emerging from its egg.

"Experts know the difference," he said.

McFarland's turtles might be young ones emerging from their shells or models of giant leatherback sea turtles. He tells of a real one that weighed more than 2,000 pounds.

Some of his favorite pieces show baby green sea turtles emerging from their nest.

"I can make some pieces in a few hours. A big one can take 15 months," he said.

McFarland belongs to scientific and environmental organizations and is recognized as an expert. He says there are eight known sea turtle species. Some scientists, he notes, say there are only seven species.

McFarland has studied sea turtle nesting areas from Georgia to the Caribbean. He can tell you that females can lay up to 1,000 eggs in a summer's worth of nesting. Nature requires that only two of the babies survive.

"They're just supposed to replace the male and female that had them so it all stays even," he said.

Sea turtles are most vulnerable immediately after birth. They must evade birds as they scurry across the sand from their nests to the sea, where they become prey to fish and other predators, he said.

People are the turtles' biggest danger, McFarland said. Seaside developments and pollution destroy their nesting sites and they die in commercial fishing nets.

"There are rescue groups who monitor nests," he said. "Sometimes they'll move nests to a protected part of the beach."

Turtles are not McFarland's only subject. He paints and sculpts figures, including nudes, and works in wood.

A local church has commissioned him to carve a 9-foot figure of Christ. His model is a photograph of a neighborhood boy draped with a multi-colored bed sheet. The figure will be carved in mahogany.

McFarland grew up in Baltimore and went to the Maryland Institute College of Art. He taught art at Waynesboro Area Senior High School for 10 years, quit for 10 years, then returned to the classroom 10 years ago.

"I love teaching," he said. "Business was good, but working here alone every day got to be old."

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