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Carving With Spirit

By Mitchell J. Shields

Contemporary makers of decoys and decorative bird carvings are putting new life into a hunting tradition.

R.D. Wilson has a story he likes to tell, one that he says may go a little way toward showing just how involved duck hunters can get with the decoys they use. It started some eight years ago, when a duck hunter in Arkansas realized that he had only a short time left to live. Unwilling to let the minor problem of dying interfere with his hunting schedule, he struck a deal: he would donate a chunk of his estate to his hunting club if its members would agree to put his remains inside a decoy and take it along with them into the woods every opening day of duck season.

“So the club contacted me,” Wilson says, a note of amused amazement in his voice, “and asked if I would carve them a hollow decoy with a plug in it. I did, and when this guy died he was cremated and his ashes put into the decoy and the decoy put up on a shelf. Now at the start of every season they take him down, shoot over him, and then put him back up on the shelf. He hasn’t missed an opening day since he died.”

Wilson, generally considered to be one of the premier decoy carvers in Texas, was trying to make a point about the almost spiritual connection between some hunters and their decoys. But at the same time, perhaps inadvertently, he was making another point: these days, serious decoys — the sort that are carved carefully by hand and may sell for anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand or more — are not created with ducks in mind. And these decoys are much more likely to spend their lives on a shelf than they are to while away their days floating on the water.

Of course, this is hardly news to those who are deep into the decoy world, a universe of collectors and carvers that in Texas has been growing steadily, if a bit fitfully, for the last few decades. It was clear as early as 1923, when the first official show for decoy makers was held at Bellport, Long Island, by the Howell’s Point Anti-Duskers Society, that hand-crafted decoys had started along the path from practical product to folk, and maybe even fine, art. By that time two things had happened: the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 had put an end to the wholesale market hunting of birds, eliminating the huge demand for decoys that such mass hunting had provided, and the growth of factory-made decoys had convinced most homegrown carvers that making their own decoys wasn’t worth the time or effort.

That distinction between the practical and the decorative has perhaps been even more profound in Texas, a state with little, if any, tradition of decoy carving. While decoy carvers blossomed in Canada, the Chesapeake Bay area and even Louisiana during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were all but unknown in Texas, for the simple reason that they weren’t needed. In Texas ducks were easy to find; they came to lakes on their own and rarely needed coaxing. All a hunter needed to do was hide and wait, then jump and shoot as the ducks settled in.

The Collector

Ron Gard was one of the first serious decoy collectors in Texas. He had trouble finding other Texans who shared his interest, so in 1982 Gard helped start the Texas Decoy Collectors Association.

As a result, it wasn’t really until the 1970s and 1980s that decoy carving began to be noticed much in the state. One of the precipitating factors was a story about decoy collector Ron Gard that ran in the Dallas Morning News in 1980. Gard, then a senior executive with Smith Barney, had started buying antique decoys about a decade earlier, when he found some while browsing through antique shows and gun shows. A duck hunter from East Texas who hadn’t been raised to use decoys in his own hunting, Gard nonetheless was intrigued by the examples he ran across, almost all of them imported at one time or another from the East.

“I was interested in folk art, and interested in hunting, and the decoys just appealed to me on both levels,” he says now. “Anybody can just carve something to hunt with, but not everyone can carve something that has the feeling of being alive, and finding that is what attracted me. It’s what we call putting the spirit in them.”

Gard was, however, an isolated case. He had to reach out to other parts of the country to find people who shared his passion for decoys, which is one reason that he decided in 1982 to help start the Texas Decoy Collectors Association, which has become a gathering spot not only for those who want to buy old decoys, but for those who want to make new ones as well.

The Decoy Carver

R.D. Wilson was a commercial artist and duck hunter. He started carving decoys while recovering from a serious illness in 1983, and today he is one of the country’s few full-time decoy carvers.

About the same time that the Texas Decoy Collectors Association was gathering steam in Dallas, R.D. Wilson was getting sick in Arkansas. If he hadn’t, he might never have become one of his home state’s best-known contemporary decoy carvers. Raised in Dallas, he had made his way to Arkansas as a commercial artist. But then in 1983 he became seriously ill and was convinced that he would never see 1984. So he took a year off while undergoing radiation treatment, and decided to indulge in something to which he’d only recently been introduced.

“I’d become a duck hunter in Arkansas,” Wilson recalls. “I never really hunted much as a kid. And when I became sick, I realized that one of the things I really wanted to do was carve my own decoys. I had read about people hunting over their own decoys, and I thought that would be sort of neat. Plus, I wanted to go teal hunting, and in the early season none of the stores had any teal decoys. So I made my own very crude ones — I didn’t have a book to follow or anything, I just basically followed my instinct — and went out with them. Ironically, it was one of the best duck-hunting days I’ve ever had in my life. The ducks just kept coming down.” The flow of waterfowl was so impressive that hunters on the other side of the lake began drifting toward Wilson to take advantage of his floating lures.

Those hunters had their own decoys out, store-bought versions, but for some reason they just didn’t have the appeal of Wilson’s. He’s not quite sure what that appeal was, though he speculates it may have had something to do with each of his decoys being slightly different, while the store-bought birds all looked the same.

In some ways, Wilson feels, those decoys — which, as it happens, were both the first and the last he ever carved exclusively to hunt over — helped save his life by giving him something to focus on during his illness. And when he began to beat that illness, the decoys gave him a new direction to follow, one that led him to a renowned decoy carver in Louisiana and, ultimately, a new profession. He decided the suit-and-tie world wasn’t right for him anymore and, after a stint as an art teacher to children with disabilities, he began to carve decoys full-time.

“Not many can claim that,” Wilson says today, standing in his studio in Mineola, a small, touristy town about an hour east of Dallas. All around him is evidence of his craft — the tupelo gum that is the favored wood of wildfowl carvers, the array of paints he uses to get just the right shades and colors onto his birds, the partially carved bodies of decoys to be and a small clutch of completed ducks in his front window that look live enough to fly out the door whenever it’s opened. “Decoy carving is a great hobby,” Wilson says, “but a tough business. I don’t know anybody who’s made a lot of money carving ducks, at least not until they’re dead. And I’m not quite ready to make that sacrifice.”

Wilson has managed to make a living by being fast enough to turn out in a few days what might take another carver a couple of weeks, by being a raconteur who has established himself as a judge and master of ceremonies at various carving contests around the country and, not so incidentally, by being good at making decoys.

What that last means can be hard to put a finger on. As Wilson admits, the basic skills required to create a decoy aren’t that hard to learn. But the skills alone are not enough. Even if you master them, learn all the tricks of wood carving and mixing paints and burning fine feather lines with a hot pen, there’s no guarantee that what you come up with will have that spark that distinguishes the finest carved ducks and wildfowl. An intricately worked decoy can still look dead, while a more modest and basic bird can seem edged with life.

One element of that difference, Wilson suggests, comes from the carver’s knowing his subject on an intimate basis. “I was a duck hunter first,” he notes, “and a lot of guys, when they kill a duck, they just throw it in the back. But I’d look at them, I’d feel them, I’d see the color.” And what he saw then, Wilson says, is what he tries to capture now.

The Wildfowl Carver

Richard Finch became a self-taught bird expert, studying bird photos, videos and live birds at rehabilitation centers. He even took a taxidermy course. As a result, his carvings are so lifelike that people sometimes mistake them for live birds. Richard Finch knows a little bit about studying birds. It’s something he’s done almost obsessively for the last two decades, or since he walked into Collectors Covey, a Dallas store dedicated to outdoors and wildlife art, to take a look at a few quail carvings a friend had told him about. Working as an engraver back then, Finch had never really done any hunting, though he had been a bird watcher on and off over the years. The quail, though, intrigued him. They were an example of what decoy carving had evolved into by the end of the 20th century.

When hand-carved decoys started moving from the outdoors to sportsmen’s shelves in the 1920s and 1930s, decoy carvers began elaborating on their basic designs. At the 1949 International Decoy

Makers Contest and Exhibition, judges for the first time officially recognized a category of decoys for their decorative rather than their functional appeal, as author Laurel Aziz notes in A Celebration of Contemporary Wildfowl Carving. And by 1971, when the annual Ward World Championship Wildfowl Carving Competition — named for a pair of brothers whose decoys had set a standard others aspired to — was launched, carvers were ready to try something different. As decoy carvers met to trade ideas and show each other what they were working on, they began to move away from traditional forms. As Aziz puts it, “Descendants of earlier, simpler and often passive floating decoys, the dynamic new decoratives dared to project greater beauty and all manner of attitudes. … With the utility taken out of carving, decoy making had moved from folk art to fine art.”

The quail that Richard Finch came across at Collectors Covey were just such decoratives. And it was something he thought he could emulate. So when he returned home, he went into his back yard, found a piece of Arizona ash, and began carving. His first bird, he says now, was less than a success. Although his training as an engraver allowed him to do the sort of intricate detail work others might envy, his bird lacked spark, lacked personality, in part, he decided, because he lacked knowledge.

So he became what a lot of decoy and wildfowl carvers work to become: a self-taught bird expert. He began to gather material on the birds he was interested in carving, pulling together reference photos, articles, videos, anything that told him a little bit more about the particular species he wanted to replicate in wood. He made a friend at the Dallas Museum of Natural History and studied the bird skins they had on file there. He began visiting rehabilitation centers to get a close look at birds that normally can be seen from only a distance in the wild. He even took a taxidermy course to get a sense of how that’s done and what details he could trust from studying a stuffed bird, and which ones he couldn’t. At one point he and a group of fellow carvers would show up at a local garden center first thing every morning for a little bird study. The center had a large plate-glass window that birds invariably smashed into, and if you showed upearly enough you could find their carcasses littering the ground at the window’s base, still fresh enough to look almost as they did alive, and available for close inspection.

A bit gruesome, Finch admits, but it was just such death studies that helped him decide one type of bird on which to focus his carving. “Owls,” he says. “They’re most likely to kamikaze.” By that he means that in drives to visit his father-in-law in Clarendon he often found the corpses of owls along the road, killed by encounters with cars. He never found hawks or other such birds, only owls. So he’d stop and study them, measuring their wingspan, examining their feathers, noting how the parts of their bodies fit together, trying to create a template for later use.

The scrutiny paid off. In 1988, Finch took an owl carving to the Ward World Championship and won best of show as a novice. The next year he entered as a professional, and has since become one of the most widely respected wildfowl carvers in Texas. The spark that was missing in his first carving is no longer missing, at times causing consternation among viewers of his work. At one show, a friend of Finch’s noticed a woman creeping up slowly on an owl carving. When asked what she was doing, she shushed the questioner, saying she didn’t want to startle the bird. At another show a viewer came up and began excoriating Finch for being so cruel as to kill and stuff such a magnificent creature. She couldn’t believe that the owl she saw had ever been anything but flesh and blood.

That is, in its own way, a compliment. The essence of Finch’s craft is to make something as close to nature as possible. But no matter how close to the real world the work becomes, it never fully escapes the hand of the carver. “Even though you’re trying to duplicate the thing exactly, some part of you still ends up in it,” Finch says. “I don’t know how or why, but it does.”

Well, yes. In some way duck carvers such as R.D. Wilson and wildfowl carvers such as Richard Finch are doing the same thing as that deceased duck hunter in Arkansas who had his ashes placed in a decoy. Each puts himself in his work in a different way, but for a similar reason. It’s a way to connect with nature. It’s a way to keep the work, and the person, alive.

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