Spin Doctor -- Former Surgeon Ben Thal Builds Humor Into His Witty, Whimsical Whirligigs

Two kinds of people stop to look at Dr. Ben Thal's whirligigs.

Some guffaw at the shenanigans above the wind-powered contraptions' wooden platforms. Others inspect the mechanics below. Thal understands both reactions: the compulsion to laugh and the need to figure out how things work.

For Thal, a belly laugh is the best applause. At some exhibits, he has videotaped viewers because they were laughing so hard. His own sense of humor leaps out from his whirligigs - the man in the executioner's hood dunking a lobster in a black kettle; the bust of van Gogh, his hand grasping a razor as it slices off his ear.

Many, like the van Gogh whirligig (titled "Lend Me An Ear"), combine humor with his profession: Thal is an otolaryngologist, an ear, nose and throat doctor. Get it? van Gogh, the 19th-century painter who cut off his own ear? Anyway . . .

Thal has taken the simple one-action craft of old-time whirligigs, which had their heyday as yard ornaments in rural 19th-century America, and turned it into a mechanical science. His gigs have up to 30 moving parts and gears setting a half-dozen actions into motion, all to tell a story or crack a joke. His first whirligigs depicted period themes: Tom Sawyer painting a white picket fence, George Washington chopping down a cherry tree - until humor got the better of him.

"I'm daydreaming all the time," Thal said. "Whenever I see something humorous, I think, `How could that be made into a

whirligig?' "

He figures he has made 60 or so in the 10 years since he was bitten by the gig bug. "People always ask me: `Where do you put them?' "

They cluster in dozens in his Edmonds living room, atop the television, fireplace mantel, bookshelves, kitchen counter; some visit friends. Of course, that's only when his wind-driven celebrities are not out on tour.

They've been in nearly two dozen exhibits, including at New York's Museum of American Folk Art at Rockefeller Plaza, Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum, the Bellevue Art Museum and Seattle Center's Folklife Festival last Memorial Day weekend. His magician-with-rabbit whirligig is featured among 60 crafts chosen for the juried Northwest International Art Competition at the Whatcom Museum of History and Art in Bellingham, which opened this month.

None has ever sold. He doesn't want to sell them. With 100 hours invested apiece, they are not just made of wood. They contain sweat and tender, loving care. A few years ago, Mia McEldowney encouraged him to show them in her gallery, Mia Gallery in Pioneer Square, which closed last spring. He did, but priced them at several thousand dollars so that no one would buy them.

"I've never been artistic," Thal says. "I've never taken an art course. When a face comes out that looks good, I'm lucky. I find that the mechanics are the intriguing part."

He gazes at his figures with a mixture of self-satisfaction and paternal pride: the figure-skating pair; the girl in pigtails jumping rope ("she really does jump rope"); the weight lifter. Modeled after 1956 Olympic champion Paul Anderson, the weight lifter is a sequence of gears moving the ankles, knees, hips and arms as the figure lifts the bar from the ground to above his head.

Thal wet his fingertip and absently leaned over to rub a smudge off the weight lifter's face. "There, it came off," he said, a glint of mischief crossing his face as he realized how fatherly the gesture appeared. "Wash your face, young man!"

To make faces appear younger, he carves them fuller. For older faces, he shaves them thinner. His own face and 6-foot-1 frame cast a youthful figure. One recent afternoon, he flung open his front door as if propelled by wind. In his eyes is the same glimmer that dreams up a pun to leave them laughing.

Thal turned 65 Friday and is semi-retired. That's partly because he devotes four to six weeks at a time to each whirligig, drafting, carving, painting and assembling.

When the former surgeon wields a scalpel these days, it's usually on the body of one of his wooden wonders. Scalpels have a range of blade sizes that work well for detailing, and, well, he really knows how to use them. Thal graduated from the University of Washington medical school, finished his residency at the University of Minnesota in 1964 and has practiced medicine ever since. Now he sees patients two days a week at the Edmonds practice he shares with four other physicians.

During those first few gig-carving years, the Band-Aids concealing his nicked fingers were a tad awkward to explain at the office. That was until he discovered Kevlar gloves, made from bulletproof-vest material. It's a trick of the trade he picked up on the carving-show rounds.

Before he begins carving, he roughs out the shape on a band saw.

Impatience led him to carve his first whirligig in 1987. He had tried to commission a New Jersey artist, Janice Fenemore, to make one for him, but when he heard she had a one-year backlog, he decided to try it himself. It was a simple bearded man with a whiskey bottle in each hand. The arms are the only moving parts, spinning around like windmill paddles in a steady breeze.

Thal is living more dangerously now that he has retired from surgery: He bought a table saw. "When I was doing surgery I never wanted a table saw because I didn't want to lose a finger. The band and jig saw, those are relatively safe."

Diversity seeped into the written comments submitted during his last show, and Thal, mulling them over, suddenly mentioned them.

"I had several comments that a lot of the women in the whirligigs were not shown positively," Thal said. "When I started studying my stuff, I did notice that. I had one comment that I didn't have any black people. It did teach me something, and that is you have to think about how people will take things."

His devotion to whirligigs has led to unusual behaviors. Like the time he wheeled a cart full of fans to the Eagle Hardware checkout counter. He used the fans to propel the gigs at his Folklife Festival exhibit. The checker joked about whether Thal knew something he didn't about an incoming heat wave. Thal chuckled.

Gig-making is not a family trait. Two of his three brothers became doctors, but no one in his family, including his sister and his two sons, is a gigger. Thal, the second-youngest, remembers a treasure trove of mechanics waiting to be taken apart in his Lithuanian immigrant parents' secondhand store in Bellingham. "Maybe I'd fix it, maybe I wouldn't," he shrugged.

He is an inventor and has patents to prove it. He designed a crank-powered surfboard as a teenager, and won a patent for improved alligator forceps to steady the tool during surgery.

His Edmonds condo, where he moved 20 years ago after his divorce, is a virtual whirligig factory. A workshop fills the basement, his second bedroom is the whirligig painting room, and he admits to carving on the living-room sofa.

"The whole house kind of revolves around whirligigs," Thal says, somewhat sheepishly. "Sometimes I'll work 15 hours a day. When I'm done, I'll just gloat watching it run. You know, I did that and it's working. I can hardly wait to show somebody that it does run."

-------------------- Competition schedule --------------------

The Northwest International Art Competition at the Whatcom Museum of History and Art in Bellingham runs from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday through Oct. 26. Call 360-676-6981 for information.