Duck, Duck, Goose

Celebrating deception at the bird carving world championship.

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To most of the American public, chicanery is pretty gauche right now: Bernie Madoff, risky bank investments, torture memos, Blago. Yet some deception is just too ingrained in our heritage to easily dismiss. Which is why competitors from around the world recently gathered in Ocean City, Maryland to celebrate and compete in the only American art form grounded in trickery. The Ward World Championship is the annual meet-up of wildfowl carvers, those artists with centuries-old ties to the decoy makers who carved birds not to decorate shelves or long tables of a small town’s convention center, but to attract and kill birds that migrated along the nation’s shores.

To be fair, this is trickery targeting not the human world, but the animal. Still, Ocean City is an oddly appropriate setting for such a celebration. It’s one of the few cities on the lower Delmarva peninsula — one of the historic centers of decoy making and bird carving — with enough motel rooms and a large enough exhibition space to host such an event. But like most resort towns of the northern East Coast, it also trades in appropriation. I stayed in the Flamingo Motel while I was there, despite being about 1,100 miles from the nearest wild flamingo. My dining options included the Olive Tree and the Crabcake Factory.

The championship was spread over two large rooms on the convention center’s ground floor. One was the show’s marketplace. Vendors set up booths displaying everything a serious bird carver might need: paints, knives, woodburners, patterns, metal feet. A photographer displayed large albums of images he’d taken of birds that carvers could buy and use as references. Another covered a table with small bins of blue and orange and red eyes. Someone in a mallard costume worked the room.

In the second, larger hall, long rows of tables displayed all the entries in the competition. It takes someone not of the art a bit of time and wandering to make sense of the organization, there are so many birds and categories and levels. It’s probably a bit overwhelming for the competitors, too, since the show’s program includes a family tree that spells it all out. Bird carving, it turns out, is a fairly broad craft filled with nuanced differences in execution and style. One category praises functionality and the craft’s historic origins, and limits the detail allowed through painting and carving; this is the umbrella category for Contemporary Antiques, for example. Have some painterly skills? You’d belong in Decorative Smoothies, which “challenges the artist to capture the essence of the species via form and paint” but prohibits texturing, the detail work that can make a carving’s feathers look as soft as the real thing.

Bringing birds to the many tables of the Ocean City Convention Center.

Carvers striving to create work that’s as close to the real bird as possible are a giant category of their own, one that suggests just how inclusive the craft of bird carving actually is. This competition has five levels ranging from Novice to World Class. Each includes categories for birds that are life-size, floaters, miniature, and interpretive. The two lowest levels, Novice and Intermediate, even include a subcategory called Bench — a kind of potpourri of carvings that don’t meet the requirements of any other category. In other words, do something to a piece of wood with a bird in mind and it’s welcome at the competition. How can you not love an art form like that?

Judging this category is a holistic process. The competition’s rules spell out five factors judges consider, among them technique/craftsmanship, artistry, accuracy, and overall presentation. But equally important is one that can’t be learned from a DVD or achieved through more detailed patterns or taught in a weekend workshop. That is essence of the species:

It involves a thorough knowledge of one’s subject and the ability to capture an attitude in wood. You see a bird on your lawn at dusk. You can’t see any details in the failing light, just a silhouette, and yet the hop and cock of the head immediately identify it as a robin. The essence of the bird is there without a feather count, a measurement of length or a check on color. You may have flawlessly crafted your bird with faultless accuracy, but unless you have captured the essence of your subject and given it the spark that brings it alive, your birds will not achieve its fullest potential.

The takeaway for aspiring carvers? Don’t miss the forest for the birds.

To describe bird carving as an American art is to belie the fact that decoy making existed long before the idea of an America existed. It’s thought that Native Americans were making decoys as early as 1,000 years ago. They used reeds, feathers, and colored pigments to create approximations of the species they hoped to lure within hunting distance; there’s speculation that some may have even worn decoys on their heads to allow them to swim up to waterfowl and grab them by the legs.

The first Western documentation of North American decoys came in 1686, when a French military officer described Native Americans’ use of birds stuffed with hay and nailed to boards on Lake Champlain. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the young nation’s East Coast bays and rivers and lakes provided a bounty of waterfowl that used them as flyways. In a perfect storm of supply, demand, and technological innovation, exploding urban populations close to hunting grounds — in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington — created a growing market for such an abundant food source, at the same time that developments in firearms and railroads made it easier for hunters to both acquire waterfowl in great numbers and deliver it quickly to the hungry cities.

Carved decoys weren’t the hunter’s only aid. Some, working at night, used kerosene lamps in the front of boats to blind and freeze the prey, much as a car’s headlights do to deer. Others used live animals as bait — the term stool pigeon, in fact, comes from the use of live passenger pigeons to draw in their unsuspecting peers.

Carved decoys were the most widespread, and the reach and diversity of the craft can be surprising. During the competition, I drove 30 miles inland to visit the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art in Salisbury, Maryland. The event’s sponsor (named for a local pair of brothers known for their carving skills), the Ward explores the evolution of the art both in the region and around the country. One room delineates the continent’s major regions of waterfowl hunting — these range from the general (the Pacific Coast and Canada’s Maritime Provinces) to the hyperlocal (Long Island and the New Jersey coast just a few miles to the south). Carvings in each historically reflected their varied hunting grounds. The decoys of Maine, for example, were built large and strong to withstand rough seas, while those of the Connecticut coast had high breasts and smooth bodies to function in the area’s strong tides and frequent ice flows.

   Judging the floaters.

Maybe the decoys were too successful, though, because hunters’ skill at killing waterfowl ultimately led to the end of their industry. By the early 20th century, bird populations had declined so precipitously that federal laws in the mid-teens banned market hunting. But instead of disappearing, the craft of carving grew as a decorative art (in addition to those still made for sports hunters). Decoys were actually first displayed at the 1876 U.S. Centennial in Philadelphia, but the earliest carver show came in 1923 in Bellport, Long Island. There, professional carvers competed for a $25 first prize, amateurs for an engraved cup.

Today carving clubs and workshops and shows and competitions are widespread. An active collecting community surrounds them, too, and its members are willing to dig deep for the most desirable pieces: In 2007, two made by a Massachusetts carver each fetched $1.13 million.

Efforts are underway to preserve the tradition even as the regions where it’s celebrated — the Delmarva, New Jersey, Long Island, New England — each day resemble less the places where it began. The Ward World Championship includes a youth category whose entries include endearing penguins and owls and eagles; last year the museum received a National Endowment for the Arts grant for a program (Carving Out Future Decoy Makers) in which children were taught the art by professional carvers.

Established practitioners, as well, seem to recognize the fluid nature of an art form grounded in a historic tradition. The Championship offered the kind of classes you’d expect, craft-driven workshops like “Creating Feet and Eyes for Songbirds” and the cut-and-dried “Carve and Paint a 2/3 size Saw-whet Owl.” But it featured, as well, classes that would puzzle the craft’s early practitioners — “Carvard Business School: A Discussion on Marketing Your Carvings,” for example, and “Interpreting Interpretive Art: Confusion or Artistic Freedom?”

Decoys, however, have long been grounded in tension. There’s the obvious one, that an object used to help kill birds also reflected a reverence for, or at least a careful study of, that same bird. But in the middle of the 20th century, some began to question whether the carvings were becoming too decorative, ignoring tradition in favor of a race to create ever more true-to-life carvings. Can a decoy not really…decoying…actually be a decoy?

The Ward brothers wondered this. In the 1960s, they realized they could earn more from their decorative carvings than they could from the utilitarian models they made for sportsmen. At the Ward Museum, I read a poem Steve Ward wrote by hand, in giant block letters, around that time:

I’m just an old has been decoy,
No ribbons I have won.
My sides and head are full of shot,
From many a blazing gun.
My home has been by the river,
Just drifting along with the tide.
No roof have I had for a shelter,
No one place where I could abide.
I’ve rocked to winter’s wild fury,
I’ve scorched in the heat of the sun.
I’ve drifted and drifted and drifted
For tides never cease to run.
I was picked up by some fool collector,
Who put me up here on a shelf.
But my place is out on the river,
Where I can be by myself.
I want to go back to the shoreline,
Where flying clouds hang thick and low.
And get the touch of the rain drops,
And the velvety soft touch of the snow.

Ward’s poem suggests a conflict in the carver, but that didn’t stop him or his brother from making carvings for collectors; their work became more artistic, their styles more polished, as they worked until their respective deaths in the 1970s and ’80s. But the poem hints at a more universal conflict, one that transcends carving — don’t we all sometimes feel stuck on a shelf, knowing there’s a more fitting place in the world for us, even if it’s hot or rainy or snowy?

At the end of the Ward Championship’s second day, vendors in the parking lot packed up rows of wooden cubes and piles of driftwood they were selling as raw carving material under an unseasonably hot spring sun. Inside, it was time for awards.

Given the number of categories and subcategories and levels, the presentation of awards is a long one. It’s an unfussy one, too. Crowds stood gathered around a lectern on a squat podium. The announcer encouraged everyone to visit the cash bar. If someone didn’t come on stage to receive his award, the announcer wouldn’t just move on to the next name, but would say, “Jim? Are you around here? I know I’ve seen you around here today.”

Turquoise-browned motmots: Not native to southern Maryland.

Most winners were already known — in the lower categories, ribbons were on the winning pieces by the time the ceremony began. The five categories within the World Championship category, however, remained a secret until the end. While the entries in every other category are displayed on khaki-colored tablecloths, those in World sit on white. As it came time to announce the winners, volunteers holding 1st, 2nd, and 3rd-place ribbons would stand inside the small square formed by the tables of each subcategory, ready to place them as the winners were announced. I saw someone in the audience ask one of these volunteers a question, and the volunteer made a key-in-lock motion with his fingers in front of his lips.

The biggest prize — for Decorative Life-Size Wildfowl — is $8,000, a World Championship ring, a cup, and a ribbon. The entries included a scene of two turquoise-browned motmots chirping at each other from a branch above a tuft of (carved) blooming orchids, and a sunbittern spreading its wings forward, so that it looked like a reverse peacock with the color palette of a turkey. The winner turned out to be a killdeer. It’s a species of bird that, when sensing a risk to its eggs, will fake a wing injury, flop around on the ground, and make a loud chirping noise that sounds a lot like “Kill deer!” in hopes of drawing a predator’s attention away from the nest. In the carving, the parent Kill Deer was frozen in a tilt to one side, its right wing spread out along the table. The bird defended a separate carving sitting two feet behind — four small brown eggs with black spots on a pile of sticks. Nature’s trickery, in this case, was rewarded with the best prize in the show. • 30 April 2009

 

Jesse Smith is a writer based in Philadelphia.

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