In the early 1930s, waterfowl hunters from the town of Crisfield, Maryland, would often stop by Ward’s barbershop before heading out to the landing. At the shop they would pay less than $2 each for hunting decoys typically shaped from cedar wood.
Sculpting decoys was as natural to Steve Ward as cutting hair, so when business was slow at the shop, he would set down his cutting shears and pick up a carving knife. When the waterfowl was finished, he would mark it for sale and place it on a shelf that shared space with bottles of hair tonic.
That was then, and now his decoys appear on the shelves of art galleries like the one at D&R Greenway Land Trust’s Johnson Education Center in Princeton. Titled “Decoys — Timeline: From Craft to Art,” the small exhibit is on view through November.
Most of the decoys here have been donated by Newtown resident Jay Vawter, who amassed his collection from several countries around the world. The timeline exhibit includes five decoys made by Steve Ward and his brother, Lem, and several by 10 other artists, most of whom have at least one piece of work in the museum founded in honor of the brothers, the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art in Salisbury, Maryland. Many items in the Vawter collection have earned highest honors in international competitions.
“We want to give a sense of how decoys went from being a hunter’s tool and craft to a fine art,” says Vawter. “The first three in the case, on loan from Ron Kobli’s Decoy & Wildlife Gallery in Frenchtown, were actually used by hunters to lure birds.”
In North America Native Americans had been using decoys to hunt live birds for over 1,000 years. Their imitations were made from grasses or cattails, feathers, and other natural materials. When settlers arrived from Europe, they took a cue from the native people and made their own decoys.
By the mid-19th century, most decoys in North America were made from wood, mainly white pine and white cedar. Called “gunners,” they were made to be both durable and buoyant.
While decoys were used by commercial hunters, they were also popular with sport hunters who were interested not only in function but in esthetics. Taking note, some carvers began making decoys of higher quality, creating a class that would later be called folk art. Taking it a step further, some carvers began making decoys purely for decorative purposes.
Between 1918 and 1920, Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the North American Wildlife Act, which limited individual hunting and banned commercial hunting of most species. Decoy makers who had depended on commercial customers closed shop or focused their business on sport hunters and individuals. During the Depression years of the 1930s, decoys served as tools of survival for many families who depended on hunting as a means of putting food on the table.
By the 1950s, manufacturers had begun mass production of plastic decoys, which were cheaper and lighter than those made of wood. Hunters often threw away their hand-carved decoys, not imagining that they would later become collectors’ items.
Carvers like the Wards, who had already been making high quality hunting decoys, refined their work even more, shifting their focus from hunting decoys to decorative art, says Vawter. Steve focused on carving, and Lem on painting.
Today there are several categories of decoys. Contemporary champion carver and artist Pat Godin identifies four main groups: gunners/hunters, generally simple in design, originally made of wood, and today often made of plastic or other materials; smoothies, made with a smooth finish and more refined than gunners; full competition, sculptures carved and etched with intricate detail using wood burning tools; and decorative, the high end of the decoy art form, often showing birds in flight.
Vawter traces his passion for the art of decoy making back to a visit to Frenchtown about 15 years ago. “I had met a client for lunch, and afterwards decided to stop by a gallery I had read about in the Trenton Times, Ron Kobli’s Decoys & Wildlife Gallery,” he says. Fascinated with what he saw, he commissioned a pair of wood ducks, never expecting that his purchase would lead to a major collection. “There was a pair of Pintails by Ben Heinemann that I wanted to buy but learned that they had been sold,” Vawter says. “Years later I did get a pair that are now at the D&R exhibit.”
Vawter loved nature as a boy growing up outside of Chicago, where his father worked for Illinois Bell Telephone and his mother was the family homemaker and an active community volunteer. After high school, he decided to pursue a career in business, earning an MBA in finance from the University of Michigan. He worked in the profession for several years and retired from his position as investment counselor from Atlantic Trust Management last year.
A photographer for 50 years, Vawter has traveled from Central America to Antarctica and to 12 countries in Africa and the Amazon. He has given presentations at Princeton’s Nassau Club and the Present Day Club, and at Pennswood Village in Newtown. A few years ago, he put his camera away. “I just want to see things through my own eyes now,” he says.
His wife and traveling companion, Harriet, has inspired his appreciation for the art world, Vawter says. Harriet has worked as a docent at the Princeton University Art Museum and today serves on the board at Morven Museum. Working with Lambertville collector and dealer Roy Petersen, she was a key person in creating Morven’s exhibit, “Coastal Impressions: Painters of the Jersey Shore, 1880-1940,” which was on view in 2013.
A few years ago, Vawter made a decision to hand his decoy collection over to the younger generation. When he learned his children were not interested in inheriting the entire collection, he considered other options but rejected the idea of selling his decoys on an individual basis to shops or collectors. “I put together this collection of decoys from all over the world, and I wanted to keep it intact,” he says.
During his search for a steward, he met Linda Mead, D&R Greenway’s president and CEO. He offered to donate the collection to the education center, and “the rest was history,” he says. “There’s good synergism here. A lot of people walk in the door just to see the exhibit,” he says. Visitors have told Vawter that while hiking on the properties D&R has preserved, they see many live ducks and birds and then visit the decoy exhibit to learn about what they saw. “I provide the decoys, but the staff creates the exhibits,” he says, with a nod to Carolyn Foote Edelmann, Laurie J. Emde, and Jeff Emde.
“I’m not a birder but I’ve always loved birds,” he says, adding that he finds it amazing that artists can create works of art starting with raw blocks of wood. “I revere the Wards for moving decoy making from a hunting tool to the art form it is today.”
“Decoys — Timeline: From Craft to Art,” at the D&R Greenway Land Trust, One Preservation Way, Princeton, free, gallery hours are Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 609-924-4646 or www.drgreenway.org.
#b#Decoys of the Delaware#/b#
The D&R Greenway Land Trust exhibit brings a good deal of Americana into a small space.
The Delaware River style of decoy making is represented by three artists who hail from New Jersey:
John English from Florence, known for his carvings dating back to the late 1800s, is among the earliest carvers along the Delaware and an inspiration for other artists. His birds are known for their subtle patterns and convincing appearance in the water. His work at Vawter’s timeline exhibit includes a blue bill drake (early 1900s) and black duck.
Bob White, who hailed from Chambersburg section of Trenton and started carving in the late 1940s, was inspired by English and referred to him as “the ultimate Delaware River carver.” On view: white bufflehead, Labrador duck pair, gull, ruddy duck pair, wood duck pair, and canvasback pair.
Robert “Turk” Libensperger hunted the Delaware marshes and, like many hunters, was drawn to carving decoys. A native of Trenton, Libensperger was born in 1931. On view: black duck.