“Decoys—Timeline: From Craft to Art”, a new exhibition from the Jay Vawter’s world-class Decoy Collection at D&R Greenway Land Trust, is on view through November 2016 at the land trust’s Johnson Education Center in Princeton during business hours. There will be an opening reception Friday, Feb. 12, beginning at 5:30 p.m.
The exhibit includes a selection of working decoys that are more than 100 years old. Jay Vawter made a gift of his prize-winning decoys to D&R Greenway in 2012.
“With this exhibition we want to give a sense of how decoys went from being a hunter’s tool and craft to a fine art,” said Vawter, a retired investment counselor and photographer who has traveled the world, amassing his decoy collection.
“The first three in the case, on loan from Ron Kobli of Frenchtown’s Decoy & Wildlife Gallery, were actually used by hunters to lure birds,” he said.
One carved by John English dates from circa 1900. Another, made by Bob White in the early 1960s, replicates the style of the early 20th century gunning birds. Some of the earliest birds have glass or wood eyes.
By 1960, Lem Ward had started to make decorative birds. Lem and his brother Steve Ward, hunters and fisherman, carved decoys to sell in their barbershop in Crisfield, Maryland in the 1920s. A decade later, the decoy business took off as fishing became a necessary way to feed families during the Great Depression. Even as the economy recovered, the decoy business continued to grow as sport hunting became popular.
The Ward brothers weren’t trained artists but developed their ability to create lifelike birds by observing birds in the marshes and waterways. Lem’s specialty was painting and Steve did the carving.
“As complex as the carving is, it’s the painting that makes them look so realistic,” says Vawter. A finely wrought sandpiper perched on a clamshell by Elmer Crowell looks as if it’s porcelain, with its delicately articulated feathers, as does a snowy owl by Bob Guge. In 2007, as decoys became a prized art form, one of Crowell’s birds sold for $1 million.
“We are excited to show these decoys because they can teach us so much about wildlife on the lands we preserve,” says D&R Greenway President and CEO Linda Mead. “These are so lifelike, it’s hard to believe the delicate feathers have been carved from wood.”
The earliest decoys were made from rushes, grasses or cattails, occasionally feather-enhanced. Many were simply two-dimensional representations. First actual carvings were of local woods, especially using this region’s legendary Atlantic white cedar. Shape was more important than design in earliest decoys.
By the 1950s, plastic factory-made decoys replaced hand-carved decoys, inspiring the Wards to move toward carving more accurately to create decorative decoys that could be put on a mantel.
In 1975, the Ward Museum opened in Salisbury, Maryland. Every decoy in the Jay Vawter collection was carved by an artist who has something in that museum, including a few by Lem Ward. Many in the Vawter Collection have earned highest honors in international competitions.
Renowned carvers represented in the D&R Greenway exhibit include Bob Biddle, John English, Lem Ward, Jim Sprinkle, Pat Godin, Bob Guge, Greg Pederson, Elmer Crowell and Ben Heinemann.