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