The Poetry of Decoy Carving / by Justine Lee Hirten

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According to the inner flap of this book’s dust jacket, Bruce Burk’s Game Bird Carving is considered to be the “bible” of bird carving. For me it was simply an impulse buy at a book sale — I had (and have) no plans to pursue carving but after flipping through the pages I knew this was a book I wanted in my collection. Bird carvers share all of the same concerns as natural science illustrators; their books are chock-full of the kinds of instruction and reference material that benefit all ornithological illustrators and artisans in any medium. If you want books with entire sections of anatomy photographed at various angles or advice on capturing the accurate posturing and proportions of birds down to the last detail then these are books you will love and visit often. Carving books also typically include step-by-step sections for painting feathers, iridescence, and other unique traits which are quite useful. Mine is focused on game birds but there are other books out there for more diverse species.

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Alongside plentiful reference photos there are many useful and well-executed illustrations which painstakingly depict the overlaying of feathers and measured anatomy of multiple species. The preparatory gridded diagrams that come before the carvings are great pieces in their own right and I find the instructional graphics in this book to be exceptionally clear and accurate. I love this example above with the gentle changes of the pintail entering the water and then in a relaxed pose. The information communicated here has a lot of heart — in a behavioral sense these are not particularly significant postures and would likely not be seen in a more scientific context. These images convey a sort of mundane information that is subtle and personal to the animal. At first glance these pages may look a bit plain and dry but I find them to be very touching little illustrations — measured, scientific diagrams of the quiet passing moments in a duck’s life, it’s kind of sweet.

This book has several more annotated diagrams about anatomy and postures as well as advice on using reference material. I thought that any illustrators following this blog might find this page about gathering measurement information from a study skin particularly useful and interesting:

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I must also express appreciation for the final results of this craft, there are great finished carvings throughout the book that I did not scan here but you can find many websites about realistic bird carving online to view examples.

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I want to contrast Burk’s book with this beautiful catalogue I obtained from a visit to the Shelburne Museum in Vermont where they have an incredible collection of over 1,000 carved decoys. I have a major fondness for American folk arts and crafts and I have used decorative motifs from colonial era quilt-making as inspiration for many of my compositions. Decoy carving has also become a significant influence on my aesthetic as it mirrors my own interest in reductive or abstracted styles of rendering birds. The birds in the niche of realistic bird carvings can rival taxidermy pieces with their detail and accuracy, but decoys go the other route in capturing the essence of the subject by pursuing the simple and the streamlined. I tend to go back and forth between realism and simplification in my own artwork so I really like having these two books in my collection to provide balanced inspiration.

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I am in love with radiographic scans of decoys and there are several examples in the beginning of this book. They are so amazingly haunting — dark, glowing, full of grim spikes and nails, and speckled with birdshot. The clash of serenity and violence is so dramatic. Of course they also tell us a lot about how the decoys are constructed which the book explains in detail, but it’s the aesthetic that really grabs me. An exhibit of just decoy scans blown up large on gallery walls would be really fantastic and impactful I think, unintentionally they evoke the ghosts of the birds that have been made into quarry.

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Even the most realistic decoys in the collection do not approach the life-like quality of the carvings featured in Burk’s book, most decoy carvers intentionally sought a very different path. They are rooted in what is utilitarian — what doesn’t need to be shown is stripped away. Historically there has been a split in philosophy where some believe the most realistic decoys are the most effective in drawing in birds while others are certain that styles that show just the essentials yield better results. All throughout this book you can see examples from both sides weaving back and forth between realism and abstraction. Enmeshed in that dynamic is the movement between tool and artwork, since many decoys are never set out for hunting and only made for decorative purposes. For some artists this means going forward with more detail and for others this means pushing further from it. One thing I especially love is the interplay of established graphic styles… you cannot tell where the sometimes cartoonish folk art styles of the 19th century end and the modernism of the mid-20th century begins — they are all guided by the unchangingly bold and stylish plumage of game birds and the movement toward showing only what is necessary. If the realistic bird carvers capture their subjects by working down to the tiniest feather and scale, decoy carvers do it by working down to the most basic essence; the realists vividly describe the subjects at length while the decoys charm us with a single line of poetry.

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I could not guess the species when I saw this cluster of shorebirds above and was surprised to learn that they were intended to be Lesser Yellowlegs as none of them are sporting yellow legs at all — or leg, in this case. Shorebird decoys were typically built on a single wooden dowel that would be stuck into the sand and were commonly referred to as “stick-ups.” This is a missing detail that might baffle a birder or ornithologist; it’s easy to dismiss this representation as being simply “wrong” but the occasional wrongness and wonkiness of folk art is part of what makes it so lovable. Their focus here is on the attitude and silhouette of this bird — they recognize that there is so much more to this species than its namesake. Look how alive these funny little decoys are! These are identical decoys — all the exact same shape simply rotated at different angles. The silhouette and pose are so perfect that each one feels uniquely poised and alert despite being a copy of its neighbor, and the more I look at it the more vividly I see the familiar presence of the Yellowlegs that I see every year in the our marshes captured in this simple form. It encapsulates how I feel about so many of the images in this catalogue — perfect and imperfect all at once, and not at all lacking for what has been taken away.

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I could not finish this post without including this amazing oversized slat goose. At 62 inches long it is absolutely worth trying to see in person. The book offers no explanation for this lovable giant, he is a delightful mystery… As with this goose, there are lots of quirky examples in the book that just “work” for some reason, even the weirdest decoys have a special something about them where you can tell the artists really knew their subjects well even if they didn’t carve and render every single detail. This is really a fantastic book and the best decoy collection I have ever seen. Visiting the museum and spending time with this book really solidified my love for these carvings. At one time they had just seemed like unremarkable decor I would sometimes encounter in peoples’ homes or antique shops; I hadn’t really been exposed to exceptional examples like the ones in this book nor had the opportunity to see their stylistic evolution laid out before me. I highly recommend visiting the Shelburne Museum to see these pieces in person if you are able, and the catalogue is available for sale in their online shop.

Thanks for reading more of my book blog! I hope this shares a bit more about how I have been influenced by other types of bird artists and craftsmen outside of painting and drawing, we all have so much to learn from each other.