People on the Land: Artisan’s Workshop Lures Others to Decoy Carving

Using tools and techniques passed down through generations, an Illinois folk artist shares all he knows about ducks, decoys, and delicacies. Each creation is unique, and, like real ducks, contains some imperfection.

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If Ducks Unlimited hadn’t been claimed already by another organization, it would be the perfect description for Pat Gregory.

Gregory is all about ducks: hunting them, carving them, and cooking them. You can learn this in person if you are ever fortunate enough to attend one of his workshops.

A born talker of the best sort, Gregory is a story teller who weaves anecdotes about family, ducks, and duck hunting into a demonstration of duck decoy carving at the Bishop Hill Historic Site in West Central Illinois. His presentation seems low key. But he really engages his audience.

As he starts out the day, his talk is accompanied by the quiet grinding “shoosh” of the rasp that shapes the wood blocks into bodies and heads. The background noise tapers off as he begins hand sanding and then puts the final touches on the duck’s highlight features. His use of electrical tools is minimal, an electric drill to drive the long deck screw to attach the duck’s head to the body. (He does not need to use dust masks, safety glasses, and ear protection.) The last part of the workshop is quiet as he pulls out his well-filled palette with 30 years of layered color, opens the paints he uses, and demonstrates brushing techniques that finish off this piece of traditional Illinois folk art with realistic Earth tones.

Gregory examines a nearly finished decoy painted by hand in earth tones. Painting takes about an hour, or one third of the time Gregory spends on a typical decoy. (Photo by Timothy Collins)

Gregory’s workshop is built on simple honesty, the directness of someone who has been loving and nurturing a hobby for more than 30 years outside of his work life with State Farm Insurance in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois. The great grandson of a famed Illinois duck carver, George “Homerun” Barto (1880-1959), Gregory now works with the tools he inherited from the man who created about 3,000 decoys—mostly ducks—during his 60-year career.

Every one of his decoys was different, Gregory says. The family pride is evident as Gregory displays pictures of his grandfather, whose reputation as a decoy carver and hunter is matched in the local area by his reputation as a semi-professional baseball player.

The passionate, but mild-mannered folk artist studies the work of other carvers and considers himself to be a lifelong learner of the craft he loves to share in in his workshops. He does not teach formal classes; he will let people watch at his shop and has, by his estimate, worked with about 50 carvers. During the workshop, he shares tips he has learned from others.

“The old-time carvers were amazingly frugal,” he says. “They developed a way in Michigan, for example, to stamp the feathers into the decoy’s wings with a forked tool and a hammer.” The practice might rattle wood carving purists, but these decoys are utilitarian, and they are a source of extra income. Instead of hours carving each individual feather, a decoy carver can create realistic feather highlights in about 10 minutes with a few taps of the hammer on the tool.

“Most people can carve the duck, but painting is difficult,” Gregory says. The use of the metal fork to imprint feathers on the wing actually helps the carver with painting, “despite the added and probably unnecessary detail.”

Gregory is steeped in the long-held traditions of waterfowl hunting along the Illinois River and what he calls “a great history of decoy carving in Illinois.” His work expresses those traditions, which he learned by watching and practicing. He used to carve as many as 300 decoys a year, but now creates 100 to 200 decoys annually for himself and others. It takes about three hours to produce each one, about an hour each to carve the head and body and another hour for painting.

Simple techniques are crucial for Gregory, even with a hobby that can bring in a little extra money on the side.

“I like to keep my time down for a decoy,” he says. “When I do sell them, I can pretty well calculate my expenses.

“I like to be efficient.”

Gregory likes the idea of efficiency to carry over into creation of the final product. A quick touch of the torch brings out the grain on the decoy’s head. The first color coat is stain, to add warmth and depth to the decoy and to fill in cracks. Layers of paint in fall colors follow since the decoys will be used for hunting. “In nature, ducks are Earthy colors,” he says.

Gregory’s great grandfather, George “Homerun” Barto (1880-1959), who carved about 3,000 decoys during his 60-year career. Gregory inherited some of Barto’s tools and techniques.

Painting the decoy requires “a building technique” with a lot of shading. Two colors are good. Three colors are better—grays and browns, raw umber, neutral gray, white, and black. The loaded palette holds only enough paint so he can use a dry brush technique, layer by layer of thin color on the duck. Gregory uses latex acrylic paints that are easy to use, have good quality, are durable, dry quickly, and clean up with water.

“I’m a pretty frugal, pretty basic, pretty simple guy,” he says. He uses cheap, stiff brushes and cuts them to his needs. Unlike some carvers, he does not use an airbrush.

The noise level goes up briefly as he uses a blow dryer on the paint.

“A lot of people want to get perfect with this,” Gregory says. “But there is no such thing as a perfect decoy. Even in nature, you pick up a hen, everyone is different. Don’t try to be perfect.”

And what would his great grandfather or other decoy carvers of earlier times think?

“If you were to bring back the old-timers, and you were to tell them this is art, they would laugh at you,” Gregory says. “They would say you were nuts for paying the price people pay for decoys today.”

That doesn’t seem to matter nowadays. The final product is a thing of beauty, ready to be used or simply enjoyed. It is not a perfect replica of a duck, but it will more than do the job for a hunter. It usefulness, coupled with its beauty, is what makes it folk art.

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone. He is the proprietor of Then and Now Media and author of Selling the State: Economic Development Policy in Kentucky.

 

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