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What started as a young child's hobby has turned into a passion and livelihood for a Buffalo man who will exhibit his handcarved, wooden miniature sailing vessels Wednesday through Feb. 24 at Niagara County Community college's Art Gallery.

The show by artist David L. Kolaga, titled "Miniature Sailing Vessels as Three-Dimensional Paintings," will feature 18 of his works, most done in one-sixteenth of an inch scale. He also works in one-eighth of an inch scale, he said.

The majority of the works will be displayed in conventional glass and wooden cases, and Kolaga will also include a couple of examples created in bottles, he said.

Kolaga relies on relentless research to ensure that his creations are historically accurate. They are shown in galleries in Salem, Mass., Philadelphia, New York City and in Hamilton, N.Y., and have commanded prices as high as $8,000 to $9,000 -- for three-foot models taking up to a year to complete. But aside from a few on loan from collections, the miniatures featured at NCCC will be available in the $500 to $2,000 range, Kolaga said.

"David is probably as much of an historian as he is an outstanding model shipbuilder," said Andrew B. Hengst, owner of the Dockyard Ship Model Gallery in Hamilton, N.Y. He has featured some of Kolaga's works in his gallery for nearly a decade and said he has sold them to collectors around the country.

"The strength that David brings to this is that he is totally devoted to it as an historian, as a mechanic and as an artist," Hengst said. "He blends all three interests into a comprehensive discipline."

Hengst said one of Kolaga's creations, the clipper ship "The Staghound," will be part of the Sotheby's sale planned in New York City this April.

Kolaga's miniatures capture the drama of the high seas, with the ships under sail and featuring men on deck against a backdrop of carved, painted wood representing the ocean.

This feature captured the eye of Bryan Hopkins, NCCC gallery director and adjunct art faculty member at the college.

"What struck me is that he actually puts them in a small environment -- the water they're sailing in," Hopkins said. "This is the difference between seeing a boat in dry dock and actually in the water. Also, they're manned -- he builds little people to go with the models. It's sculpture as well as design. It's just fascinating to me."

Kolaga said he uses pine or basswood for the ship hulls.

"The fittings are cherry or cedar because they mimic mahogany, and the masts are birch," he added. "The men are brass wire skeletons, built with paper and wood and painted. The ocean is basswood because it has almost a waxy texture. I prime the wood, then use acrylic paints and glaze it with a non-yellowing lacquer."

Always on the alert for the perfect wood for his art, Kolaga keeps a keen eye out for old furniture left at the curb, because, he explained, "the wood is nice and dry because it's been in someone's house for years and years. I'm looking for close, straight grain and I just need little pieces. All of the fruitwoods are real nice to work with because they have a very fine grain."

He spends a great deal of time poring over library books and brings a true hands-on knowledge of boats and ships to his art, having toured U.S. Coast Guard stations across the country with the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps. He has also worked in yacht yards and running supplies to ships docked in Buffalo as a young teen. He also worked at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park for six years in the 1980s, he said.

To support his art along the way, Kolaga has also been an ironworker, like many of his family members; pumped gas; waited tables; become a professional musician, playing the piano; and even worked as a forest ranger.

"But I always came back to making boats," he said. "Ten years ago, I realized that with my commissions, I had actually been earning a living doing this while I was an ironworker, so I quit ironworking and never looked back.

"This is a real throwback career, because I don't have a computer, I have some power tools, but the vast majority of my work is done by hand, at home," the 41-year-old artist said. His workshop is in his Minton Street home in Buffalo. "I have completely eliminated the need for an alarm clock, and that is no small feat."

While he studied art in high school and college, Kolaga is self-taught when it comes to carving miniatures.

"I started ship-building when I was very young -- about 5 or 6," he said. "I always liked it. By the time I was 10 or 11, I put ships in bottles and I built hundreds and hundreds of them.

"I was thinking about this recently, and my dad died when I was young, but I remember him drawing two things, a man's face and a schooner," he said. "And you know how they always refer to ships as 'she,' well, maybe my shipbuilding is an unspoken homage to my mother."

Kolaga said he was also influenced by James Gillis of Buffalo, a fellow miniature shipbuilder, "who has dedicated his whole life to this. I admire his perseverance."

Kolaga also is a self-taught musician, playing piano and other keyboards in three local bands -- "Hound Dogs," a blues band; "Kinsman Cage," which has a compact disc out titled "Fabulust"; and "Moose and Squirrel."

"I get up every morning and I have work to do and I feel really lucky," he said. "Life is good."

Admission is free to the gallery, located in the "D" building of the college at 3111 Saunders Settlement Road. A public reception will be held from noon to 2 p.m. Wednesday at the gallery. The gallery is usually open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, but visitors should telephone 731-NCCC, Ext. 480, to check.

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