10th Decoy Festival Honoring Carver Of 44 Years

Jim Pierce Helped Start Annual Festival

April 28, 1991|By Terrie Snyder | Terrie Snyder,Contributing writer

Jim Pierce's drawknife glides across a rough chunk of board, scattering thick curls of wood across the floor. He loosens the vise, takes the form into this hands and starts shaving the grain to a smooth finish.

For the shape of a duck's head and beak to form in the craftsman's hands takes only seconds. Watching the ease with which he works, you get the feeling anyone could carve a duck decoy in minutes.

"I make it look easy because I've been doing it so many years," Pierce cautions. The Havre de Grace resident, 57, has worked at his craft for about 44 years.

For most of that time decoy carving was a hobby. But he started carving on a full-time basis two years ago after retiring from C & P Telephone Co.

Pierce's love of decoy carvingextends beyond the workshop in back of his house. He's the honorary chairman of next weekend's 10th annual Havre de Grace Decoy Festival,which is expected to have displays from 200 exhibitors and draw more than 5,000 people.

Devotion to the craft of decoy carving -- some call it art -- made Pierce one of the prime movers behind the creation of Havre de Grace's Decoy Festival, say organizers of the event.

When he and several friends organized the first show in 1981, theyhad two goals in mind. One was to honor R. Madison Mitchell, of Havre de Grace, perhaps one Maryland's best-known decoy carvers. The other was to raise money to build a museum dedicated to their art.

More than 3,000 people attended the first show. Each year since, the numbers have grown. The festivals' success showed up in concrete and glass in November 1986, when the museum opened. Pierce's dedication was recognized when be became its first -- and so far only -- board president.

But Pierce's real love today is carving. His shop, nestled at the bottom of a hill behind his stone house, reverberates with the sounds of men turning white pine into delicate works of art.

Hand-made tools given to him 40 years ago mingle with paint brushes and a modern machine that can cut hunks of wood into the approximate shape of duck's body in seconds.

Pierce recalls that when he started carving at age 13, decoys were made for one reason: sale to hunters who flocked to the upper Chesapeake Bay and Susquehanna Flats to bag ducks and geese that dotted the shoreline in the fall. Pierce himself loved to hunt.

"If you wanted to hunt, you made a few decoys for yourself," herecalls.

When he discovered how much he enjoyed decoy carving, he started to learn from Mitchell, the area's master craftsman.

For 17 years, Pierce says, he spent his free time working in Mitchell's carving shop, studying the master's technique.

Pierce credits Mitchell with spawning Harford County's growing number of skilledcarvers.

"Most of us who make decoys learned everything from him.A lot of us have picked up his patterns and his technique of painting."

A decoy's head is the tricky part, says Pierce.

"There are only so many people who know how to carve duck heads," he says.

Wood patterns that hang from rows of hooks in the ceiling are used to shape a decoy's head in Pierce's shop -- patterns Mitchell made for him many years ago.

When Pierce opened his first carving shop in 1953, he had no idea that carving decoys would become one of his great joys.

But, he started to spend the bulk of his free hours working there, refining his technique.

"Instead of watching television, I liked to carve. And on the weekends, I'd paint (the decoys)," he says.

While hunters still buy decoys for hunting, sales to collectors have been the big money maker for many of today's accomplished carvers, notes Pierce.

"In the last 15 years, it's been recognized as a folk art. Now, 98 percent of the people buy (decoys) to put in their houses. It's a work of art," he says.

It's an investment, too.

When Pierce started, he sold a pair of mallard decoys for $12. Now, a pair of mallards sell for $100. A pair of wood ducks brings $600. A pair of swans sell for $900. Collectors will pay $5,000 for a decoy made by his old mentor, Mitchell, notes Pierce.

While he can paint up to 12 of the less complicated decoys in an hour, the wood-ducks take up to 20 hours each to paint.

It's easy to see why they can takeso long. As he cradles one in his hands, the iridescent blue feathers slashed through with metallic gold shine under the fluorescent light. The gold underbelly and rust-colored breast are in deep contrast to the still-unfinished gray and white head. He still has to place theeyes, refine the color of the head and paint the detail of the beak before the decoy is ready for sale.

Pierce and his assistants makemore than 20 species of full-sized and half-sized decoys. He stoppedmaking the delicately time-consuming miniatures he loves in 1976. Heplans to make a few for the museum, but won't sell them anymore because his arthritic hands make working on the fine details too difficult.

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