The first time you see a carving of a water fowl created by Pat Godin, you might be tempted to reach out and touch the feathers. If so, you won’t be the first person to question whether they are really carved from wood.
Godin, a Canadian resident and 13-time “Best in World” winner, will be happy to satisfy your curiosity when he makes a presentation on decoy carving as part of the opening weekend of the exhibition “Champions Decoy Exhibit: Best of the Best” at the D & R Greenway’s Johnson Education Center on Rosedale Road on Friday, November 8. The weekend also includes a specially guided “Ducks and Fall Migrants” walk set for Saturday.
Champions Decoy features 33 hand-carved water fowl selected from an 80-piece collection — given to D&R by Princeton resident Jay Vawter. The works are carved by artists represented in the Salisbury, Maryland-based Ward Museum, which organizes the annual World Championship competition, and includes creations by Godin and seven other artists whose works span from 1920 to 2013.
During his presentation Godin will discuss his art as well as how competitions work, decoy judging categories, skill levels, and the judging process. He will also present images and samples for each category and discuss the process of carving and painting birds.
He will probably also highlight an award work that holds special meaning for him: his miniature scale Willow Ptarmigan titled “Arctic Spring.” The award for the carving was an interesting coincidence, says Godin, noting he received his 13th award in 2013.
The relationship of birds with the environment and wildlife is an important theme in Godin’s carvings. His decorative sculptures include nature elements such as tree branches, leaves, and ground cover, and occasionally a small animal. His carvings often tell stories, as the names of his decorative pieces suggest; “Arctic Spring,” “Battle on the Lek,” and “Prairie Courtship” are a few examples. Godin says he sees himself more as a nature sculptor than a bird sculptor because he doesn’t focus exclusively on the bird.
In spite of the artistic quality of the higher-level carvings, serious collectors often prize the less sophisticated hunting decoy, and carvings that have actually been used by hunters are the most valued. The current record purchasing price is $1 million, Godin says.
Conservationists are using newly made decoys to help in the study of bird migration. The decoy lures the bird into a trap and is held by the researcher long enough to be banded or unbanded before being set free. In southern New Jersey, the Nature Conservancy’s Gandys Beach Preserve uses decoys for studying Willets, a large stocky shorebird found on the eastern coastline. Decoys are also used to encourage birds to repopulate old habitats.
Godin, who not only carves but paints his sculptures, says that most of his inspiration comes from live birds and nature. “I work a lot from memory. When I was a kid, I banded birds, and it soaked into my head. Sometimes I use photography to get started.” For his more refined work, he will create a clay model before carving in wood. “I’ll often have a series of photographs of the birds in front of me. Sometimes, I might use different photographs and put them all together to come up with my own interpretation. But the result is realism. As I carve, I’m almost painting it in my mind.”
“I want my work to be a piece of art, not just a craft. If you look at the variety of birds and incredible colors they have, there’s something about them that captures the imagination of people. And they can fly. If I were to come back to earth as another being, it would be a bird.”
Godin has been interested in birds and ducks since he was in grade school in Brantford, Ontario, his home town, which is also the home town of Alexander Graham Bell. His favorite place to be was on the river. By the time he was 11, he was carving his own fishing lures. When he was 14, he graduated to duck carving after coming upon a library book on the topic. After high school, he enrolled in the University of Guelph in Ontario, where he earned degrees in wildlife biology and waterfowl ecology. He has written and illustrated “Championship Waterfowl Patterns” (three volumes) and has illustrated and provided text for “Reference Guide, Waterfowl II.”
“I feel I’m freezing a moment in time,” Godin says about his work. “It might be a fleeting moment. And someone who has been out in nature might have seen that moment.”
In conjunction with the exhibit opening, there is also a “Ducks and Fall Migrants” walk at the Abbott Marshlands the following day, Saturday, November 9, led by ornithologist Charles Leck and Mercer County naturalist Jennifer Rogers. The walk starts at 10 a.m. at Spring Lake in Roebling Park in Hamilton Township.
“You can’t separate the water fowl from the ecosystem,” says Leck. “Water is the basis for the life of birds and animals. A healthy bird population is a sign of environmental health for countries around the world.” A declining population of any one species will tell you a lot about pollution, Leck says. For example, a few years ago, bird watchers noticed a decline in the Cormorant, a type of fishing bird, along the Delaware River. When the bird watchers talked with the fisherman, they found that the fish were contaminated, which of course tells you the water was contaminated.
Surprisingly, says Leck, the river has become cleaner over the years. “The river was a deathbed for a lot of birds and fish” prior to improvements related to environmental laws and the closing of industries along the river that had been a source of pollution. Gradually, the beavers, otters, and osprey have come back, Leck says.
Within the marsh area, Leck has identified 240 bird species of the 245 total. The fish diversity is the best in the state, providing a home for 62 species.
One thing people will find surprising, says Leck, is that the marsh between Bordentown and Trenton has tides. Even though it is a body of fresh water, the Delaware Bay influences the water level of the marsh. “Our tidal cycle is pretty dramatic, up to 6 feet per day.”
Because of the diversity of life in the marsh, walkers on November 9 will see evidence of beavers, otters, turtles, and other species, as well as a variety of plants and trees.
Leck grew up in Princeton Junction, where his father worked as an electrical researcher at RCA and his mother took care of the family’s home. He spent time exploring the Millstone River, Lake Carnegie, and the woods and wet meadows of Plainsboro, now the Plainsboro Preserve. He’s been bird watching for half a century, he says.
Like Godin, Leck became interested in birds as a kid. He remembered being in Boy Scouts and noticing a group of people looking up at them. He wanted to know what they found so intriguing. That year he earned a bird study award and has been a bird watcher ever since.
From those interests Leck earned his undergraduate degree from Muhlenberg College and his PhD in animal behavior from Cornell. He became a professor at Cook College, Rutgers University, where he taught courses in animal behavior, ornithology, and ecology from 1970 to 2000. While still active at the university as a professor emeritus, he is more prominent as the author of “Birds of New Jersey: Their Habits and Habitats,” published by Rutgers University Press.
Leck, who lives in Kendall Park, is quite familiar with the marsh. His wife, Mary, is a botanist, professor emeritus at Rider University, and founder of the Friends for Abbott Marshlands. There they continue to work with students on research projects and marsh related programs.
If you attend the exhibit talk and the marsh walk, you’ll have the opportunity to experience firsthand what you learned about the birds from an artist’s perspective, Leck says.
Champions Decoy Exhibit: Best of the Best, D&R Greenway, Johnson Education Center, One Preservation Place, Princeton, Friday, November 8, 5:30 to 7 p.m. Free (donations welcome). Register.
Ducks and Fall Migrants, Abbott Marshlands, Spring Lake, Roebling Park, Hamilton. Saturday, November 9, 10 a.m. Free. 609-924-4646 or drgreenway.org.