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  • Massachusetts Masterpieces: The Decoy as Art

    An Exhibition at the Museum of American Bird Art

    by Gigi Hopkins, Exhibition Curator, andAmy T. Montague, Director, Museum of American Bird Art

    published in Hunting & Fishing Collectibles, Nov/Dec 2013

    Greater Yellowlegs by unknown maker. From a private collection.

  • Massachusetts Masterpieces: The Decoy as Art

    An Exhibition at the Museum of American Bird Art

    by Amy T. Montague, Director, Museum of American Bird Art

    The main gallery of the Museum of American Bird Art

    The Coot Shooter by Frank W. Benson (1862-1951), oil on can-vas, 1913. From a private collection

    Gigi Hopkins opened my eyes to the won-ders of Massachusetts decoys. But when she first suggested that we follow up the Museums successful Crowell exhibition with one focused exclusively on Massa-chusetts birds, my response was, frankly, lukewarm. I was reluctant because for more than a decade the Museum had been building a reputation for the professional-ism and scope of its exhibitions and col-lections, which feature art of national and international importance. I was concerned that an exhibition focused on our state would be perceived as parochial. How-ever, Gigi provided one compelling rea-son after another why such an exhibition could be both important and exciting.

    She explained that the quality of design, carving and paint, and the diversity of styles found within such a limited geo-

    graphic area are remarkable. Unlike other parts of the country, there is no regional school of decoy-making. Each Yankee craftsman came to the task with his own eye, talent and ingenuity. She led me through the stylized geometry of Lincoln, the lively paint of Holmes, the sturdy shapeliness of Lawrence, and much more. She also pointed out that the collecting community had made the ultimate endorsement of Massachusetts decoys: nine of the top ten record-setters of the last four decades were Massachusetts birds.

    Gigi had made the case persuasively. I decided we would proceed with the exhibition and wanted her voice as cura-tor to be as present to the Museums visitors as it had been to me in our own discussions. Her depth of experience with decoys is unrivalled. For nearly five decades as a conserva-tor she has examined them closely, learning to reproduce the varied carving and paint techniques. The exhibitions strength would be based on her deep knowledge and dis-cerning eye, and I was delighted when she agreed to write the interpretive text from a personal perspective.

    Preening Jack Curlew by A. Elmer Crowell (1862-1952). From a private collection

    How did I get into decoys? It was kind of inevitable. As a child, Id take my fathers Crowell birds into the light, trying to figure out how the paint had been blurred. Dad, who loved gunning, founded a firm that sold min-iature waterfowl, and these were all over the house. (They were great in the bathtub.) My mother adored songbirds and came from a family of serious birders; she even had a cousin who invented the glass hum-mingbird feeder.

    From the beginning I was drawing and carving animals. Then, in the sixties, I got hooked on birds. I spent hours at Dads Cape Cod hunting camp scoping the mud-flats for shorebirds. In the seventies, I carved birds for Mass Audubon and spent four blissful years banding song and shorebirds at Manomet Center for Conserva-tion Sciences. In 1966 I restored my first decoy, and the business took off like a rocket. Lucky timing! So in the lastwhat, almost fifty?years, Ive had the privilege of handling many thousands of wonderful decoys.

    When I was given the op-portunity to curate this exhibition, I immediately knew that I wanted to se-lect for beautyand to me, a beautiful decoy combines both aesthetics and birdi-ness, kinship to the bird portrayed.

    Every bird in the exhibition stopped my heart when I first saw it. In a way, it became mine. And if I was lucky, the owner would send it to me for conservation work, and then I would savor every moment with it. It was an intense pleasure to bring these treasures to-gether, and to bring them back to their home state.

    A Curators Quest for Beauty by Gigi Hopkins

    Hopkins banding birds at Manomet, 1977

    Gigi knew immediately that the selection should begin with aes-thetics: beauty. Additionally, she required striking design, effortless woodworking and distinctive paint. And, equally important, each bird should be an excellent portrait of the species it depicted.

    We had the concept, and Gigi had in mind most of the decoys she hoped to include, but in many cases we didnt know who the cur-rent owners were. We shared our ideas with Stephen B. OBrien, Jr. of Copley Fine Art Auctions, and he was immediately enthusiastic, offering to help us connect with potential lenders. His assistance was invaluable throughout the exhibition development process.

    We were fortunate to have loans from some of the finest folk art and sporting art collections in the country, and are sincerely grateful to the lenders who made the exhibition possible: Philip and Tina De-Normandie; the late, and deeply missed, Jim Doherty; Thomas K. Figge; Ted and Judy Harmon; Paul Tudor Jones, II; Peter Van Dyke; Cap and Paige Vinal; Henri Wedell; six collectors who preferred their loans to be anonymous; and Historic New England. Our visits with the lenders were a privilege and a delight.

    In the pages that follow, we showcase some of the extraordinary de-coys that were on view in the exhibition, May-September 2013. We are currently fundraising to publish a book based on the exhibition, and welcome donations and inquiries.

  • Massachusetts Masterpieces: The Decoy as Art

    Wood Duck DrakeBenjamin Warren Pease (1866-1938), Marthas Vineyard

    A quiet, attractive portrait finished in discreet colors. Whereas the Lincoln Wood Duck is rather cool and aloof, this decoy invites the viewer in with its warmth and subtlety.

    Collection of Thomas K. Figge

    Red-breasted Merganser DrakeCaptain Preston Wright (dates unknown), Osterville

    Although worn by hard use in the field, this bird remains a fine example of Ameri-can folk art. Its horsehair crest is rare, and the chiseled upper wing edges are an un-expected treat.

    From a private collection

    Red-breasted Merganser PairClinton Thomas Keith (1887-1975), Kings-ton

    Keith was an exception to the rule of Mas-sachusetts makers developing their own style. He copied a pair of mergansers made by Lothrop Holmes, a friend of his fathers. But no known Holmes merganser has a swimming henwhich is the most dynam-ic aspect of these two. Keith started with Holmes but improved upon the masters design.

    Collection of Paul Tudor Jones, IIFormerly George Ross Starr, M.D. Collection

    Wood Duck DrakeJoseph Whiting Lincoln (1859-1938), Accord

    This is surely one of Lincolns most desirable decoys, and one of his most renowned, with its clean shape, geometric colors and remarkable condition.

    Collection of Paul Tudor Jones, II

    Red-breasted Merganser DrakeHenry Keyes Chadwick (1865-1958), Marthas Vineyard

    A slender, racy bird with delicate form, perfectly matched with its refined, somewhat abstract paint pattern. The head is slightly turned to the left, giving it a sense of motion.

    Collection of Ted and Judy Harmon

    Red-breasted Merganser DrakeAnthony Elmer Crowell (1862-1952), East Har-wich

    A decoy that provides striking contrast to the merganser above. This massive bird is one of Crowells best. In spite of its imposing size, it is finished with fine details like the carved spray of rump feathers falling over its chiseled wings. The painted colors were kept discreet thus do not subtract from the birds form. This merganser was made for Harry V. Long of Boston and Cohasset, an early, important patron of Crowell.

    Collection of Cap & Paige Vinal

    Museum of American Bird Art at Mass Audubon

  • Massachusetts Masterpieces: The Decoy as Art

    Greater YellowlegsUnknown Maker

    The group of five yellowlegs displayed in the exhibition is from one of the most re-markable rigs of lively shorebirds ever discovered. Each birds pose is different, dynamic and beautifully seen. The carved detailsbeaks, wings and tailsare im-possibly delicate. From a private collection

    Golden PloverFolger family (1800s), Nantucket

    A beautifully-seen plover coming into winter plum-age. The stylized paint pattern, though abbreviated, is convincing and artistically pleasing. The same is true of the plovers shapely profile.

    Collection of Paul Tudor Jones, II

    Eskimo CurlewFolger family (1800s), Nantucket

    Another wonderful portrait of a now-extinct shore-bird. Like its rig-mate, the Folger Golden Plover, its curves are well balanced and the decoy is enhanced with subtle coloring.

    From a private collection

    Oldsquaw DrakeStephen Badlam (1822-1898), Boston A snooty duck with great attitude and fine con-struction details. It was very likely made by a grandson of Stephen Badlam (1751-1815), the renowned Boston cabinetmaker.

    From a private collection

    Common Goldeneye HenFranklin Pierce Wright (1856-1939), Osterville

    This modest little duck is superbly defined by its carving. Such affectionate attention to detail is rare in a gunning bird. Only two other decoys are known by this maker.

    Collection of Ted and Judy Harmon

    Canada GooseCharles Augustus Safford (1877-1957), Newburyport

    An imposing goose constructed from several pieces of laminated wood. The seams remain tight, even though the de-coy spent many gunning seasons out on the marsh. It is finished with surprisingly sensitive detail in the face.

    Collection of Historic New EnglandGift of Bertram K. and Nina Fletcher Little, 1991.1173

    Muse