The Old Masters: Famous Names from Decoy Carving History
Decoy carving, like any fabled art form, has its Old Masters.
The men who make up the unofficial decoy hall of fame come from a variety of backgrounds—carriage maker, carpenter and more—but they share one thing: incredible artistry.
Each carver’s work reflected the unique species and ecosystem in his area, leading to a distinct regionalism in which the Old Masters are inseparable from the states in which they carved.
In this post, we’ll cover some of the Old Masters from Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, North Carolina and Massachusetts. Along the way, we’ll include insight from Michael Braun, a New Jersey-based carver Michael Braun, whose decoys are available on our site.
Connecticut: Shang Wheeler (1872-1949)
Wheeler is widely regarded as the father of modern duck carving. By “modern,” we mean decoy carving’s transition from simpler representations of waterfowl to carving decoys to make them mimic a real duck.
“Wheeler wasn’t just caring about suggestions of what he thought the duck looked like, he tried to make it look like the actual bird,” Braun said. “During his time, he was the most accurate carver as far as size and shape of the actual bird.”
Wheeler’s magic was a combination of his extensive portfolio and his equally incredible ability to carve and paint.
The Ward Museum, whose collections focuses on wildfowl art, points out that Wheeler hunted and carved “every bird known to inhabit the East Coast stretching from Maine to Florida.”
As for Wheeler’s skill with the paintbrush, the Ward Museum characterized his skill as “exquisite”.
“In addition to being a superior carver, Wheeler was also an exquisite painter. He combined careful layering of paints and subtle gradations of color to attain a natural look,” the museum noted.
Pennsylvania: John Blair, Sr. (1842-1928)
Blair Sr.’s career as a duck carver is one of the most storied of all time. Blair was a carriagemaker by trade and was able to convert his carving skill to decoys, where he quickly became one of the most respected carvers in the Keystone State.
Braun said what made Blair great was the “delicate painting” and the “smooth and clean carving like a carriagemaker would make.”
There is some mild controversy regarding Blair’s legacy, though. While there’s no doubt the decoys he made by his own hands were transcendent, Blair trained a group of carvers to churn out decoys. This group became known as the “Blair School”.
There are those who believe that Blair didn’t carve and that he only sold what his apprentices made. Others assert the Blair carved his decoys but that someone else painted them.
Whichever the case, historians and Braun agree that Blair Sr.’s work is transcendent.
“The Blair School decoys have the same shape characteristics as what Blair Sr. Made but they aren’t as refined as a classic Blair,” he said. “Basically, it’s the difference between the master and apprentice.”
Maryland: R. Madison Mitchell (1901-1993)
Mitchel is a legend in the decoy carving world, but especially in Maryland where he transformed decoy carving through his willingness to teach.
“Everybody that carves a Maryland bird today at one time learned in Madison Mitchell’s shop,” Braun said. "Anybody that carves full-time knew and carved with him.”
Like Blair, Mitchell’s decoys were something he did in his free time outside of his main job. While Blair was a carriagemaker, Mitchell ran a funeral home in Havre de Grace, Maryland. When work was slow, Mitchell would carve.
His work is the cornerstone of the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum, an epicenter of American carving history.
Mitchell ceased carving in 1984 because his eyesight was failing but continued his legacy by signing decoys in exchange for donations to the Havre de Grace museum.
In Mitchell’s 1993 obituary in the Baltimore Sun, friends and family extolled his commitment to the craft.
“Because of him and his willingness to share the art form, the legacy will continue to flourish,” said E. Mitchell Shank, one of his grandsons.
Noted carver Harry Jobes also offered his insight about the legendary carver.
“Everything I know about decoy-carving I learned from him,” Jobes told the Sun. “I began working with him when I was 13 and stayed for 28 years.”
Mitchell’s works are on display most notably in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., as well as the Havre de Grace museum.
North Carolina: Lee Dudley (1861-1942)
Lee’s fame as a duck carver is ingrained in the lore of North Carolina folk art.
Pages from Daniel Patterson and Charles Zugg’s “Arts in Earnest: North Carolina Folklife” reveal the birth of the artist’s craft. Lee and his brother Lem learned decoy carving from their father, Robert. They “faithfully replicated his styling,” the book notes.
Lee and Lem honed their craft in their free time between farming and hunting. There was a certain nonchalance about the way they viewed their decoys, the book notes:
“The Dudleys themselves never paid much attention to their decoys. One year, for instance, they piled their decoys in the barnyard and allowed their herd of cows to crush the rig into splinters,” Patterson and Zugg wrote.
Over time, though, the Lees worked gained popularity among decoy critics. Perhaps what stood out most about Lee’s work was the attention he paid to heads, especially those on the canvasbacks he carved.
Well-known decoy expert William Mackey Jr. Gave high praise to Lee for the way he handled his canvasback heads.
“Mackey describes the Dudley decoys as having ‘smallish, competently carved but on the whole very ordinary bodies’ and ‘the most beautifully conceived and splendidly carved heads every placed on duck decoys,’” Patterson and Zugg wrote.
Maine: Gus Wilson (1864-1950)
Augustus “Gus” Wilson was a lighthouse keeper by trade and, like many of the Old Masters, he did his decoy carving on the side.
Braun calls Wilson the “Shang Wheeler of Massachusetts”, and rightly so. His work was innovative and distinct from other carvers in Maine.
As the Ward Museum points out, Wilson's nuances included carving wings in relief and creating black ducks whose heads moved separately from their bodies.
Wilson’s works have gained the admiration of collectors too. A merganser drake decoy he carved around 1900 sold for $330,000 at MA-based Copley Fine Art Auctions, a well-known name among decoy collectors.
Copley owner Stephen B. O’Brien was quoted as saying the merganser was “a big, bold carving” that was sought-after because the duck’s bill was open, a rarity among Wilson decoys.
Wilson carved other animals in addition to his ducks, too.
New Jersey Harry V. Shourds
Among New Jersey carvers (of which there are many), Harry V. Shourds is legendary. He came from a line of carvers—his grandfather and father carved too.
However, Shourds focused on creating his own artistic style. He did not want to repeat his father and grandfather’s style.
His push for individuality is what led him to be a winner of a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Heritage Fellowship in 1989.
“I hate to copy someone else, even if it’s someone in my own family. I make my own ducks, and I think each one (in my family) did,” he told the NEA. “You can tell my grandfather’s duck from my father’s duck, and you can tell my duck.”
Another driving force behind Shourds’ artistry is his commitment to the Old Masters’ affinity for carving ducks as they see them, not generating exact replicas.
“Today, the carvers are getting real ducks. They're getting mounted or frozen ducks, and they copy them feather for feather. It's really model-making instead of carving. It's a nice sculpture when it's finished. But I like to put a little dream into it,” Shourds told the NEA. “I don't copy off a real duck, and none of the old-timers did. They hunted duck and sold ducks in the wild and took their memories from them. They worked from those memories.”
Final Thoughts from Bruan
Braun said that many of the techniques the Old Masters created are part of how carvers approach their decoys today.
“A lot of the techniques that they did evolves today. A lot of the line work is used today. A lot of traditional carvers still carve today like they did back then,” he said.
As for what made the Old Masters the best of their generations, Braun said it was an intersection of necessity, talent and artistry.
“Everybody carved decoys back then. It’s not like they could go to the store to buy decoys,” Braun said. “They were the best because they had raw art talent and they were able to get the essence of what the duck is supposed to look like. They have a real folk-art flair and they’re very elegant.”