The Art of Deception


The Art of Deception

What are duck decoys, and how did they become sought-after collectibles? ‘The Art of Deception’ looks at hand carved decoys as an underappreciated form of American folk art. Although the golden age of carving decoys ended with the age of plastics making cheaper and lighter decoys, the art form is still practiced today across the Illinois River Valley.

AIRED: December 16, 2019 | 0:25:48

- [Announcer] This program is made possible in part by

Sid and Flo Banwort, the Peoria Riverfront Museum

and by the Stacey Tomczyk Fund for Local Programs.

(gentle music)

- [Cameron] The fact that they were tools and yet,

some of them, some of the makers went to such lengths

to make an incredible work of art.

It really was above and beyond what was needed

and I think that's pretty fascinating.

- [Zac] To me, the question is why has it taken

so long to recognize the decoy as an art form.

(upbeat music)

(tool scraping)

(cicadas chirping)

- [Doug] Made for harvesting the bounty of wetlands,

over time they have become recognized as an art form.

Decoys that were once used to lure waterfowl are now

attracting collectors.

- They talk to us about people

who were considered untrained artists.

These are everyday people who were building

these objects to use as tools.

And these men had no formal training

and what they were able to do was create these really

extraordinary objects that in many ways, in terms of form,

their patterns, really presses, really presages,

modern art in America.

So it's a valid form of American folk art.

People don't look at decoys as a work of art

and that's because there's a bias that exists

against functional objects, but these objects,

I think, rival any sculpture made in America today.

Once you get up close, you see the skilled hand

that's involved, both in the carving of the wood,

the treatment of the wood and then the painting.

The painting on many of these birds is better

than any painting you'll see on canvas anywhere.

- [Doug] For some, the beauty is enhanced by the stories

associated with the decoys.

Learning about the carver and even the clients

adds an additional layer of appreciation to the artistry.

- Enoch Reindahl.

Absolutely eccentric individual.

No running water, no telephone, no toilet.

Went to the dump every day to get stuff to live off of.

Never had a job.

Made the finest hunting decoys painted.

- He made his own camera and he would take it

out in the field and he would set it up and shoot photos

of him setting up his rig out in the field.

I think he probably cared more about hunting,

making his decoys than anything else in life.

It really comes across in the amount of time

you can tell he put into these decoys.

I mean, they are painted with a precision that is like

a 17th century Dutch painting.

- What's interesting about those also,

if you turn those birds over, the bottom is painted

just as finely as the top and he has a square,

a brass square hole, underneath that you could put

a stake in so he could use them in the field

and in the water.

(gentle music)

- [Doug] This mallard drake from the 1890s was crafted

by the Caines brothers from South Carolina

for a former Confederate general.

Known as expert fishermen and hunters who counted

President Grover Cleveland as a client,

their work is among the most respected in the nation.

It is believed less than 50 of their decoys still exist.

- [Zac] There's markings around the decoy

that look like stitching.

When I asked the owner of that decoy, like, why does it

look like a leather saddle is on it's back?

He said, well, that's influenced by West African

scarification and that's something that you would have

seen on a regular basis on the plantation in the South.

- The reason that decoy is so incredible to me is,

it is a work of art.

I mean, it looks like if it would've been found

in a tomb in Egypt,

it wouldn't surprise anyone, it's that artistic.

The fact that they went to that extreme, you know,

tells me they weren't making that decoy just to shoot ducks.

They made that decoy the way they made it because

they had something to say and they were gonna say it.

- [Doug] Although it's an extreme example, the Caines

brothers' mallard demonstrates

that all decoys are not the same.

Finished pieces were influenced by both the carver's

interpretation of water fowl and the region

of its creation.

- [Kory] There's a full spectrum of realism in these birds.

Some people thought that the more realistic a bird looked

that it was a more effective lure.

Other people thought these birds are flying

at high altitudes, they're just gonna look down quickly,

they're gonna get just a broad view of things

and so they could be more abstract in their patterns.

- The thing that I think is so interesting about 'em

is the fact they that they were regional

and once you study them,

even though a pintail that flies down the Pacific Coast

is the same as a pintail that flies down the East Coast,

makers from different regions came up with totally

different interpretations.

Some of it was based on the conditions that, in which

they hunted.

- I mean, you have the Connecticut school

and the New England school, the South Carolina,

the Illinois River, I mean, they all totally different.

Each style evolved from the area they were used in

and the conditions that they were used in.

Illinois River was backwaters, low shallow water,

so they didn't need a big wide heavy decoy,

like if you were hunting in the Chesapeake Bay.

- You got like a boat shape when they carve it

and it sits in the water, like a stream or a river,

and it flows.

It'll sit there and it stays upright.

(gentle music)

- [Kory] The Illinois River corridor is extremely important

to the history of American decoy.

This was a major flyway for migratory birds and it

was part of a big economy here.

It represents a whole other region where we see these

different artistic styles appear.

- This is a late 1800s Billy Shaw.

It's called a Lincoln-style bird because of the shape.

It's got a nice contour to it, a tapered off tail

and everything, a narrow neck.

It's got like a cheeky, real cheeky design in the head

so it's a very nice style decoy.

Most Shaw decoys, you'll find, they all been repainted.

Very few have original paint from Shaw.

This one was actually painted by Charlie Perdew.

- [Doug] Of all the carvers that dotted

the Illinois River Valley, one of the most recognizable

names is that of Charlie Perdew.

At age 14, Charlie moved to Chicago, where he worked

in a slaughterhouse while attending art school at night.

Later he returned home to help on the family farm.

- Charlie is a free spirit so he didn't wanna be a farmer.

He wanted to carve.

Then he rented a building in our downtown.

That's when he started doing these other things,

caning chairs, making furniture, doing reupholstering

for people, besides carving.

- [Doug] Charlie, in addition to his furniture business

and carving, repaired household and hunting items,

plus designed and built his own home.

But he was only half of the decoy team.

The other half came in response to an ad

in the local paper for a painter to finish his ducks.

- [Pat] And Edna had just graduated from high school

and everybody knew how talented she was so she came

and worked with Charlie in the shop for two years

and then they got married.

- [Doug] One technique Edna and other decoy painters used

was borrowed from furniture makers who would replicate

wood grains on a finished piece.

- [Zac] Sometimes they used an English graining comb,

it's a tool with a bunch of teeth on it.

After they would paint the back of the decoy,

Edna would take the graining comb and run it

along the wet paint

and you'd get those grooves and those lines on the back

to mimic the feathers.

- [Pat] And they were the better quality decoys.

Very high demand.

When the hunters found out the quality of them,

then he would get letters.

We have lots of letter correspondence

and it's the same story.

When am I gonna get my decoys?

One guy waited three years for 10 of 'em.

And if you pushed him too much, you never did get

your decoys, you learned to be patient with Charlie.

- I believe Charlie Perdew elevated decoy carving

in the river valleys 'cause of the longevity

of his carving.

He was producing' decoys for over 60 years,

starting in 1900, so they influenced a lot of other carvers.

- [Doug] Carvers did not live in an isolated world.

They shared their craft and studied the works

of the other makers.

Charlie influenced others, but he first learned

decoy carving from an established artist.

- When Charlie was young, he decided he needed

more instructions on carving, so he rode his bicycle

down North 29 to Bureau and there was a gentleman there,

Elliston, and that's where Charlie learned a lot

of his technique.

Charlie changed some of his, the shape of his ducks,

so they would be strictly his.

- I think today, we get all caught up today in, whoa,

who's pattern is that?

Well, you know what?

They were makin' decoys for one reason.


That's why they made these.

My great granddad was George Barto.

He grew up in Tiskilwa, Illinois along the Illinois River,

was a farmer by trade but then, you know,

he was a duck hunter.

They made decoys.

He started makin' decoys in the 1890s, carved all the way

into the 1950s.

He has patterns from Charlie Perdew, he has patterns

from Robert Elliston and he has patterns from Bert Graves.

But, you know, back in the day,

just like we contemporary carvers do,

you swap patterns, you help each other and so on.

Well, this is a Bert Graves pattern and so

he copied Bert Graves later.

You know, Graves was from Peoria and so his,

I've actually got all his patterns and so he's

actually written on there, Graves and Perdew.

So this one is more square.

The Perdew is more rounded, you know.

It just depends on who he copied.

Each carver has a style.

You know, you can use the same pattern,

but with the Bartos for example, he had a very heavy bill.

His decoys were a lot thicker and a lot sturdier.

- You can see the influence between each of these

different generations of carvers because many of them

were, you know, proteges of each other or mentors.

And so, you see that every generation, they sort of

keep the good things, and they improve on the things

that needed improving.

(guitar music)

- [Doug] The idea of viewing decoys, not as just tools

for hunting, but as pieces of art began with an architect

from New York named Joel Barber.

His book was pivotal in elevating decoys nationally

and became the definitive collector's guide for decades.

- Joel Barber wrote the first book on decoy collecting

called "Wild Fowl Decoys."

It was written in the early '30s.

Nobody knew anything about decoy collecting

before he wrote this book.

There were a few collectors but this is when

it went nationwide.

He saw these birds and he said we could decorate

our houses with these, these don't need to function

out in the field to hunt, but they're actually become

part of the inside of our house and something that we look

at and appreciate as an art form, just like having

a painting up on the wall or having a sculpture

in the corner of your home.

- [Doug] Barber's book not only brought collecting decoys

to the forefront, it also generated national fame

for a weather-worn, ruddy duck decoy.

- [Zac] That one specifically, I think, is important because

Joel Barber tells the story of finding that duck

on the second page of his book "Wild Fowl Decoys."

It's considered the holy grail of decoys.

It's also considered the best decoy in the collection

of the Shelburne.

- You know, it's a masterpiece of simplicity.

And the fact that it's missing so much of its paint

just makes it even more appealing to me 'cause you,

it's just got this kind of organic quality about it

with the raised grain and the cracks in the wood

and it's got a real proud look to it.

(guitar music)

- [Doug] But for many decoys, recognition came too late

and they are lost forever.

- And after people quit usin' 'em, they burned 'em.

There was game warden named Jerry Strong from Lincoln

that had a gunning camp in the '20s and then

the Depression hit, he said he'd thrown a lot of them

in the fire, in the stoves, just to get rid of 'em

and to use 'em for heat, yeah.

- [Doug] Later the golden era of decoy carving came

to an end with the introduction of cheaper

and much lighter plastic decoys.

(tool scraping)

Today, while the number of carvers is a fraction

of the late 1800s, the art form survives.

Some artists are continuing a family tradition,

while others have found inspiration in the old decoys.

- I just remember, as soon as I saw 'em,

bein' fascinated by 'em.

Right then and there, I made up my mind I was gonna try

to carve one and I didn't know anything about carving

but I remembered seeing an ad in the back

of a Ducks Unlimited magazine for a Carve Your Own Decoy kit

so I ordered a Carve Your Own Decoy kit in 1977 or '78

and tried to make my first decoy then.

I was about 10 years old.

- My dad, he carved decoys.

I've learned pretty much the basics.

He give me a few pointers every now and then

and every year, I just kept makin' more and more.

I've made over a 100 decoys now.

If I'd wanted that particular bird, I'd just carve it.

Then after I accumulated quite a few, Dad said,

might as well sell some of those (laughs).

- My wife Nancy kind of challenged me.

She said, you know, you could make those.

And I'm like, yeah, no way.

And she was right.

When ducks come in and land, for me, I look at that

and it's like my mind snaps a picture of that

and I'm like, oh, I gotta make that.

Matter of fact, there's been times when I've

been so inspired, that I'll see something and I come back

to the shop and I go out there and I drop a pattern

and I cut it out and I carve it, because for me,

that's how I get inspired.

Look at this guy.

That's an example, to me, of just snapping a picture

of a racing, you know, this guy was just like, wow.

And, for me, that's kind of how my mind works,

is, you know, I snap a picture of a duck up here,

doing that, and then I gotta render it in wood.

I can get a little more in the mood of makin' the body

than painting.

Sometimes you gotta be in the mood to paint

and then some days you're in the mood and I'll sit

there for two, three weeks and just paint a bird.

Go to the next one, paint a bird.

Go to the next one, next thing you know,

you're runnin' out of birds to paint and you're like,

shoulda carved some more.

I carved this one, this is what you call wigeon

or a bald pate.

Nickname's kind of a bald pate 'cause of the whiteness

on the head and they got real good color textures.

This is, for me, one of the hardest birds to paint so far

because you get the certain color they got.

They're almost like a between a brown to mauve

to a pinkish color.

- I'm a traditional decoy carver, so I intentionally use

the same kinda tools that the old carvers use.

I mean, I chop my decoys out with a hatchet and I use

strictly hand tools.

You have to make a lot of birds and you have to learn

about tools and working wood and you have to make,

you know, one of the hard things is people have to,

they have to make mistakes and if you just,

you can't get from Point A to Point B without a lot

of hours and a lot of, makin' a lot of mistakes

and you learn from those mistakes.

- [Doug] For both the carver and collector,

decoys can become more than a decorative accent on a shelf

or a lure for waterfowl.

The relationship can become quite personal.

- I remember one time, I sold bird and it drove me so crazy

that I actually went and bought the bird back for $200

more than I sold it for, just 'cause I regretted

selling that one duck.

- It is very hard to give them up.

Yes, that's very difficult.

That's why I still have 250 of these things or whatever.

I just can't give 'em up yet.

- [Doug] Today, prices for antique decoys, depending

on the carver, can bring a healthy return,

especially if they were bought back in the early 1900s.

- It was $36 a dozen back in the day, you know.

You could buy one of his decoys for $3.

Today, I'd say my great granddad's carvings are

going for anywhere from $500 to $1,000, you know.

I think he'd think, he'd laugh, you know?

I think he'd think we're probably nuts, you know,

because the truth of it is, these things are tools.

I mean, you threw 'em in a gunny sack, you hauled 'em

to the marsh and you threw 'em in the water.

- [Pat] We have no idea how many decoys Charlie made.

The only one we have in our museum is a Charlie Perdew

and it's been valued at $5,000.

This past April, they auctioned off a mallard,

sleeping mallard hen, she's got her head back.

It went for $220,000.

He was doin' what he loved to do and if people wanted to pay

him for it, you know, it went real high,

it would kinda tickle him

that they were payin' that much money for his ducks.

- The Charles Schoenheider geese, the story is

that Charles Shoenheider Senior was a very, very

profitable carver in Peoria, Illinois.

He carved ducks and was approached at one point

by a gentleman to do a rig, basically about a dozen,

geese, which he had not done, to our knowledge.

He had not produced before.

He subsequently went to work and made 10 standing,

what we call standing geese, probably put on ice

and two sleepers, the only geese that we know

that Schoenheider, Senior made.

Upon renegotiation, it took him a little longer

to produce, I think, than he had imagined

and asked for a little more money,

to which the client refrained and told him

he could keep those geese, which he did.

He put them in his attic.

- That was then.

Let's fast forward it to 2017.

One just sold for $210,000.

So many of these great carvers, Perdew, Ward brothers,

Elliston, Schoenheider, they died broke.

They could not fathom realizing something that they made,

has sold for a dollar or two dollars,

would be worth $100,000 today.

I mean, in their wildest dreams,

they could never thought that.

- [Doug] The great carvers did not become wealthy.

Instead, they left behind a legacy of taking a hunter's tool

and transforming it into something extraordinary.

Like other forms of art, decoys can be appreciated

on several levels, but it takes time.

Time to study the history of the carver,

their nuances and variations.

As that happens, viewers begin to see less of the duck

and more of the artist.

- It's folk art, it's the common people made these.

These people were not trained as artists.

They had something within themselves and they saw something

and they thought, I could make something like that.

Or, they saw somebody else's rig of hunting birds

and thought, I could do that.

- [Zac] There was a time where these birds were used

and thrown into a gunny sack, thrown into the boat,

thrown over on to the dock.

These were utilitarian objects, for a long time,

and they were treated as such.

Often, the most beat-up birds are some

of the most beautiful.

You can actually feel the history in them.

- I would like for every generation to appreciate

these objects and I'm hoping a new generation

of people will fall in love with these objects

because they deserve to be appreciated.

- [Announcer] This program is made possible in part by

Sid and Flo Banwort, the Peoria Riverfront Museum,

and by the Stacey Tomczyk Fund for Local Programs.

(gentle music)