Artist carves out success

Artwork: Jeanne Hiss, one of the few professional female decoy makers in the country, has turned a hobby into a lucrative full-time job.

September 04, 2005|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Jeanne Hiss faced a dilemma 23 years ago.

The Havre de Grace resident sought a unique gift for her brother and his wife, who were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.

Hiss' search took her to - of all places - a decoy carving class taught by a renowned carver named Dan Williams.

"At the beginning of the first class, Dan held up a block of wood and told the class, `There's a duck in this wood and we're going to set it free,'" Hiss recalled. "I just thought that was so beautiful."

And although she left that first class wearing a bandage on every finger, she was hooked.

"I was in a class full of men and I wasn't about to let them know I didn't know what I was doing," said Hiss, now 77. "But at first, it was a challenge. I learned quickly that sometimes that duck doesn't want to come out of the wood."

In the intervening years, Hiss took up the craft full time and has become an accomplished carver. Her work has fetched up to $6,000, she has clientele worldwide, and she receives invitations to national shows, at which she's won many best-of-show honors.

And despite arthritis in both hands, she continues pursuing her passion.

Says local decoy collector Paul Bushman: "She's one of just a few female carvers and one of a few in the country that do detailed decoy carvings. ... I think she's one of the best."

Hiss has been named honorary chairwoman of the 18th annual Duck Festival on Saturday and Sept. 11 at the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum.

Not even Hiss would have predicted her future success when she walked into that first class more than two decades ago.

She attended about eight weeklong classes before setting out on her own. She spent a year trying to perfect her skills.

She dubbed her first attempt "Bob Hope" because of the duck's large nose. Her second piece was her first sale. She was amazed that people liked her work and were willing to pay for it.

"Right after I first started, I brought a duck into work and showed it to them and they loved it," Hiss said. "I assumed they didn't know what a duck looked like. But I just thought it was wonderful that someone wanted to pay me $200 for that duck."

The more she practiced, the more passionate she became about carving. Eventually she quit her job as a credit union manager and took up the art on a full-time basis. She sells her work starting at $300 a piece.

In the early years, she carved about eight hours a day and turned out about four pieces a year. She staggered the work on various pieces to give her hands a rest from strenuous carving and detail work. Over the years, she has cut her time to about six hours a day, six days a week.

Along the way, Hiss developed arthritis in her hands and had to replace knives with a Fordham tool, an electronic device she uses for sanding and carving.

"These days I have trouble peeling a potato," Hiss said. "So I work until my hands are so sore I have to stop."

Her husband of 59 years, Warren, does his part to help.

"I don't begin to have talent like she does carving," Warren said. "But when she wants to start something new, I cut out a block of wood for her and draw the pattern on the wood for her. What I give her is just a basic square, but I round the corners and help her so she can focus on the detail work."

Jeanne Hiss is especially fond of the Easton Waterfowl Festival, where she has a following.

John Payne, decoy collector, saw her work in Easton and said her history appealed to him as much as her work.

"Jeanne started late in life with carving and she does some of the best work I've seen," Payne said. "I bought a quail and three babies and they are so lifelike and so rare in decoy carving. Her use of color is outstanding."

Warren Hiss said his wife has admirers throughout the world. She has customers in France, Russia, Scotland, Japan and most of the 50 states, including Alaska.

He recounted the time a retired military man and his wife, who live in Alaska, saw her work at a show in South Carolina and purchased some small pieces. They called last year and told Hiss they wanted to buy one of her large pieces. Hiss carved one and called to tell the couple she was showing it at the next show in South Carolina.

"They never called back, but they showed up at the show and bought the piece for $5,000 or $6,000," Warren Hiss said.

Duck Fair

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 11.

Where: The Havre de Grace Decoy Museum, Market and Giles streets.

Activities: Bird mask-making, face-painting, games, crafts, silent auctions and an "Ugly Duck" contest. Carvers will be working throughout the area.

Information: 410-939-3739, or go to www.decoymuseum.com.

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