Decoy Carving Legends: Lem Ward, Harry V. Shourds and Rich Smoker
If the town of Crisfield, MD, could stretch out its legs, its feet would touch the greenish waters of the Tangiers Sound. It’s here in this waterside enclave that legendary carver Lem Ward and his brother Steve would look out over the water at the ducks they’d emulate in their carving workshop.
Less than 10 minutes away up Route 13 is Marion Station. a town so small there isn’t a single stoplight. You get there by driving through jagged-edge farmland down a two-lane road. This small hiccup of a town is home to another all-time great carver, Rich Smoker, who moved to Marion Station when he was 30 and hasn’t left.
And, if you’re up for a road trip north through Delaware, you can drive about 3 hours and 30 minutes and end up in Seaville, NJ, where Harry V. Shourds once plied his trade just a few miles from the Delaware Bay and its varied and prolific waterfowl.
These men represent the finest in duck carving and they share an incredible trait that goes beyond their participation in decoy carving. They’ve all won the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship.
These fellowships “recognize the recipients’ artistic excellence and support their continuing contributions to our nation’s traditional arts heritage,” the NEA site explains.
Their inclusion in this pre-eminent cultural program is an affirmation of decoy carving’s place in American folk history.
Rich Smoker: 2019 NEA National Heritage Foundation Winner
Until Rich Smoker won a Heritage Foundation Fellowship in 2019, it had been 20 years since a decoy carver won the honor.
Smoker was the second Maryland resident to win a fellowship, following in the footsteps of Lem Ward.
Smoker started carving with his father when he was a teenager.
“I originally started carving decoys because as a kid I wanted to hunt ducks and I could not afford decoys,” Smoker said in his NEA video. “My dad was a woodshop teacher. I said something to him and we decided we’d make decoys. While I was in high school, that’s what I’d do. I’d go down to the woodshop and work on decoys during study halls.”
After high school, Smoker apprenticed at a taxidermy shop. He spent nine years there taking copious notes about a myriad of waterfowl from all over the world.
“I learned (waterfowl) anatomy, from the inside out, until I decided I didn’t want to do that anymore,” he said.
In the early 1970s, he went to a decoy show put on by the Ward Museum, the premier waterfowl decoy museum on the Eastern Shore.
“Luckily for me, I found the...Ward Museum,” he said. “I knew my path in life would lead that way for the rest of my life and it still has.”
Smoker taught hundreds of classes at the museum from the early 70s to 2018.
Over the course of his career, Smoker has won multiple awards and recognition for his work:
- Named a Master Carver by the Maryland State Arts council
- Inducted into the Eason Waterfowl Festival Hall of Fame in 2001
- Third place in the decorative miniature division of the 2001 Ward World Championships for
- Best in World in the Shootin’ Rig division at the 2008 Ward World Championships
“A man who works with his hands is a laborer,” Smoker said. “A man working with his hands and his mind is a craftsman. The man who works with his hands, his mind and his heart is an artist. And that’s the way I view (decoy carving). I love making birds. I love doing what I do.”
(NEA video if you want to use it)
<iframe width="460" height="284" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/Z75uNk_mY3g" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe>
Shourds: 1989 NEA National Heritage Foundation Winner
Harry V. Shourds was born in N.J. in 1930. He became part of a rich tradition of carvers: his grandfather and his father were carvers themselves. In fact, the Ward Museum points out that Shourds’ grandfather was considered one of the best carvers in New Jersey.
While the carving bond was strong between his grandfather and father, Shourds didn’t have much time to build an equally powerful bond with his father, who died when Shourds was 12.
So, he had to teach himself how to carve. He relied heavily on the resources around him to make his decoys and followed the same basic system each time he made a duck decoy.
“I use Jersey white cedar, which grows in the swamp, for the wood. It is a wood that's used on boats and shingles. It's a durable wood for outdoor use,” Shourds told the NEA. “The decoys are made in two pieces, the top half and the bottom half. Both halves are hollowed out to make them light, and it gives them air space so they won't crack over the years.”
Shourds was intent on creating his own style of carving separate from what he learned from his father and grandfather.
“I hate to copy someone else, even if it's someone in my family...I make my own ducks. And I think each one (in my family) did. You can tell my grandfather's duck from my father's duck, and you can tell my duck,” he told the NEA.
One of Shourds’ defining skills was the ability to carve waterfowl and shorebirds.
A 1984 New York Times article about the decoy carving community highlighted the respect Shourds had (and still has) among decoy carvers and collectors.
“His expertise has won recognition among collectors, and he now devotes full time to the carving of black ducks, brants, mallards and wood ducks, as well as shorebirds such as sandpipers, seagulls and pelicans,” reporter Doris Ballard wrote. “Although he carves many decorative birds, Harry V. Shourds' decoys, which are weighted and ready for use in the water, are more in demand by collectors.”
Shourds passed in 2017, leaving behind an incredible legacy that stretched back to his grandfather more than 100 years ago.
An excerpt from his obituary in The Press of Atlantic City reflects the influence his family name had on the area:
“Like his grandfather and father before him, Harry's efforts as a folk artist resulted in the name ‘Shourds’ becoming a household word among collectors and folk art enthusiasts. He was one of the few full time ‘professional’ decoy carvers of his generation and his work was the subject of numerous articles and documentaries over the years. His love of wildfowl and nature in general inspired him over the seven decades of his carving career.”
Lem Ward: 1983 NEA National Heritage Foundation Winner
Lem Ward and his brother Steve grew up in Crisfield, plying the waters of the Delaware Bay with their father. The boys’ father taught them how to carve, which, at the time, was a necessity to help put food on the table.
Tragically, when Lem was 22 years old, his father passed away. The untimely death put the family in dire financial straits. Lem and Steve took up decoy carving as a profession to make ends meet. Steve would do the carving and Lem would do the painting.
What they created over the five or six decades was nothing short of revolutionary for Maryland carvers and the decoy carving community throughout the Atlantic Flyway.
Their signature style features decoys with flat bottoms, an exaggerated head and simple painted patterns, the NEA points out.
Lem’s use of “stippling”, a technique in which the painter uses tiny dots rather brush strokes, resulted in lifelike decoys whose dotted colors were reminiscent of Impressionism.
The Ward Brothers’ legacy became such an important part of the folk history of the Eastern Shore that the Ward Museum opened up in their name in 1968.
“The Ward Foundation has been dedicated to promoting wildfowl art and preserving the legacy of Eastern Shore decoy carvers, Lem and Steve Ward,” the museum’s website reads.
Ward passed away in 1984, the year after he became the first decoy carver to receive the NEA World Heritage Foundation