With a handful of paints and varnishes, a few simple tools, and no small amount of patience and skill, decoy carvers transform rough-hewn blocks of wood into one-of-a-kind functional works of art. Drawing on centuries of craftsmanship and waterfowling tradition that began with early Native American tribes, modern Southern carvers continue to breathe life into a variety of winged subjects. To celebrate the craft’s artistry, Garden & Gun has partnered with Orvis and Blade and Bow to present a multi-city event, Art of the Decoy, featuring the work of five of the South’s most active and accomplished contemporary carvers—Tom Boozer, Charles Jobes, Cameron McIntyre, Jerry Talton, and Spencer Tinkham.
Regionally sculpted duck decoys—whether carved in the classic Chesapeake Bay, Core Sound, Louisiana, or Ward Brothers’ styles—might be among the most well-known examples of the craft, but the traveling event, which speaks to Orvis’s and Blade and Bow’s commitment to quality and excellence both in the field and behind the bar, honors the decoy in all its forms. Alongside expertly executed gadwalls, teals, and wigeons, hunters and collectors will find geese, swans, and shorebirds, as well as doves and even a few rare hand-carved turkey decoys in the mix. Excluding the more decorative shorebirds, each of the displayed decoys are meant for field work, and in time, every scuff mark, ding, and dent will tell the story of a hunt. “At the end of the day, life is too short to hunt over plastic decoys,” says Talton, who contributed five of his Core Sound duck decoys to the event.
Debuting as the 2021/2022 hunting seasons for both waterfowl and Upland game birds ramp up, Art of the Decoy begins in November and runs through early February. Open to the public, Art of the Decoy will travel to Orvis stores in Atlanta; Charlotte; Charleston, South Carolina; and Dallas, as well as at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville. Read on to meet the makers and dive deeper into their respective artistic processes.
Meggett, South Carolina
Legendary Lowcountry carver Tom Boozer crafted his first duck decoy at nine years old, under the watchful eye of his mentor, the renowned woodworker Olin Ballentine. He’s hardly set his tools down since, gaining acclaim for his rare hollow-bodied duck decoys. An avid turkey hunter all his life, Boozer hadn’t contemplated carving his own turkey decoys until a friend and former game warden asked for one. Today, his gobblers are sought after well beyond his inner circle. “I cut my own American white cedar in the swamps of the Congaree headwaters,” he says. The freshly harvested wood then needs to dry for at least two years before Boozer uses a hatchet and drawknife to carve out the delicate bodies before finishing them with paint.
Havre de Grace, Maryland
A celebrated Maryland carver and 2021 Made in the South Awards winner, Charles Jobes was schooled in the classic Chesapeake Bay carving style by his father, the talented maker Captain Harry Jobes, himself taught by the famed Havre de Grace carver R. Madison Mitchell. “While they would paint, I would play in the sawdust in the workshop,” Jobes says. “I began carving when I was eight years old.” That same year, Jobes went body booting with his father for the first time. This unique style of hunting originated with local Chesapeake Bay watermen, who, undaunted by the elements, pull on diving suits and waders to stand in cold, often chest-deep water while watching the skies for duck and geese. Today, Jobes’s much sought-after duck and geese decoys, made from Basswood and white pine, sell as fast as he can carve them.
New Church, Virginia
A modern master craftsman and full-time decoy carver (as well as a landscape painter), Cameron McIntyre’s talent is such that museums and auction houses often turn to him for help with delicate restoration work on the rare antique decoys in their collections. Paying homage to the carvers of the past, he eschews power tools and creates each duck, goose, swan, and dove decoy by hand in his rural studio on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. His more primitive forms, like the dove decoys spotlighted in Art of the Decoy, are left intentionally unpainted or weathered to celebrate the raw materials and purity of form.
Stella, North Carolina
There’s a simple elegance to the hollow-bodied duck decoys the 2016 Made in the South Awards winner Jerry Talton painstakingly brings to life. Crafted in the traditional style of Carteret County along the North Carolina coast, near the Outer Banks, his modern-meets-antique decoys are made the old-fashioned way, with delicate bills but no eyes or eye channels. “The most beautiful decoys ever made were made with simple tools that most any waterman would have—rasps, hatchets, draw knives, spokeshaves, and pocket knives,” Talton says. Continuing in that tradition, Talton completes the illusion of age using handmade stains and pigments from recipes he concocted himself.
Spencer Tinkham was a young boy when his grandfather taught him to whittle, setting him on the course that would lead to his life’s work. Today, the twenty-nine-year-old Virginia native represents a new generation of craftsmen, carving everything from award-winning duck decoys to more decorative shorebirds. “I have a notepad and pen wherever I go,” Tinkham says. “There’s a pad on my nightstand, in my living room, my car, the kitchen, my luggage bag, and throughout my studio. No day passes without any sketching.” Once a final sketch is complete, he carves his shorebirds from blocks of weathered wood foraged from the marshes near his Virginia home.
Join us at a stop along this special five-city tour to take in striking works by these prolific Southern carvers. Click here for dates, locations, and more information.
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