The decoy carvers hunkered around a long work table in a back room at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. Blueprints and tools were sprawled across the surface and the air smelled of woodwork. Larry Parker, the group’s instructor, was intently drawing by hand individual feathers onto the shaped body of a duck while the other members of the group, with experience ranging from two years to over 40 years, proudly showed off their previous works of avian art.
“It’s a traditional folk art,” states fellow carver Clenton Warnick. “People used to make these and actually set their decoys out to sell the ducks that they shot. This was a big market hunting area. You would catch crabs, you would do oysters, or you would shoot ducks.” At some point that very utilitarian view of decoys evolved into an art. The talent of the artisans whose table I shared the other day was matched by their respect and appreciation for the history and culture of the art form itself.
Obvious to anyone that attended the recent Waterfowl Festival, decoy carving has a history strongly rooted in the Eastern Shore. But like many things that define the communities of our country, a change in priorities, lifestyle, and technology is easing art forms like decoy carving into obscurity. Gene Rall and his fellow carvers, however, are dedicated to keeping the craft alive and relevant. “We’re trying to build [the group] so that it is at least sustainable as a beginners class and an experienced class,” says Gene who moved to the Eastern Shore from Philadelphia for the decoy carving culture. “Then our mission would be to reach out to high schools. And, either through the industrial arts program or through the art program, get younger people involved in this art form of bird carving.”
Perhaps in part due to the current lack of young immersion programs, decoy carving seems to be one of the specialties still passed down by master craftsmen. A high level of experience is needed to be able to share each of the many techniques involved in creating a quality decoy. Not only must they carve a bird out of a block of wood, but they must also give the carving texture, apply delicate, intricate, and repetitive layers of paint, make sure that--in the case of waterfowl--the animal floats level when thrown into the water, and give the inanimate object personality. That’s right, in competition the carvings are judged on their personality as they bob on the waves. “It has to look like it is alive and floating,” explains Gene. “It is a serious competition. You have to sometimes touch it to make sure it’s a decoy and not a living bird.” The group’s excitement always seems to reach a peak as they discuss the Ocean County Decoy and Gunning Show. Only instructor Larry Parker has competed in the annual competition, but they all share a fervor for the event.
Each in a different stage of their two to four month long projects, I watch them sketch, plan, carve, burn, and paint. Sitting among them as they work and exchange passionate banter, the small back room feels more like a social club than a workshop. I think that is a big part of the appeal. Like whittling or quilting, decoy carving like this harkens back to a time when we would work together to survive. We needed art to feed our families and keep them warm. By working together as a community we could accomplish it more efficiently while also socializing. That spirit is here with these men as they create lifelike animals out of blocks of wood, and they are fighting to keep that spirit alive.