Carving Out A Place in a South Shore
~ By Maryellen Dever
The art of carving wood decoys dates back to a time in Hingham’s history when there were many wood craftsmen. Hingham was known as “Bucket Town” for its distinctive utilitarian wooden ware. Much like fishermen need bait and flies to catch fish, wildfowl hunters need decoys to attract live birds. The South Shore, and particularly Hingham, is home to some of the finest decoy artists, past and present, in the country.
Bob Mosher, arguably one of the most nationally famous local decoy carvers, is also an avid historian and collector of what he sees as a uniquely American art form. Like most carvers, Mosher hunted birds in his youth and began carving his own decoys as a teen. His preferred hunting ground was Hingham Harbor, where he absorbed some history while hunting alongside some of the “old timers” whose decoys were made by legendary Hingham craftsmen Joe Lincoln and Russ Burr.
He explains that decoys are used to attract live birds, so the more realistic they look, the better. Groups or “rigs” of decoys are set in the water to lure birds flying by. “Ducks like decoys. The idea is to fool the bird so that it will come down, by making it think the area is safe and a good place to eat.” Much like we would stop and eat at a restaurant with a full parking lot, taking that as a good recommendation, so would the birds see the decoys as a good sign and come within shooting range.
In Joe Lincoln’s heyday during the early 1900’s, there was an active group of “market gunners” on the South Shore. A market gunner hunts to sell to the market. In the case of Hingham gunners, they would sell ducks and birds to the train conductors going through town, who in turn would sell to middlemen for restaurants and milliners in Boston. In those days, market gunners were well-paid, making as much money as a stevedore. Lincoln’s decoys were purely tools of the trade back then, designed to look relaxed and well-fed, according to research in a book written by Duxbury collector Cap Vinal.
Lincoln’s decoys, although not signed, are distinctive in their simplicity. Peter Clarke, who, along with his wife Diane, is a well-known collector and dealer through their website, The Sportsman’s Eye, explains: “Joe Lincoln’s decoys were valued by hunters because of the form, craftsmanship, and the paint. In 1936 the shooting of migratory birds was regulated mightily. One of the aspects was the hunters were no longer allowed to shoot over live birds; therefore decoys became more in demand and more valuable. The numbers of decoys in large rigs also added to the demand. Joe Lincoln and other carvers were carving a wider variety of decoys, mixing Black Ducks and Mallards; Blue Bills with Canvasbacks, etc.”
Clarke added, “Decoys never stopped evolving. The handmade line soon became finely made with cedar, pine, and pressed cork. The pressed cork available washed up on shore from life boats and life jackets from World War II. One pressed cork in our collection was carved by Russ Burr from Hingham.” Lincoln used mostly white cedar, Clarke said. Lincoln’s decoys sold for around $3 each new. Some of his decoys have, in the recent past, fetched prices in the six figures at auction.
Russ Burr and his family were also well-known decoy artists of the day, and like Lincoln, highly sought after by collectors today. Burr is renowned for his miniatures, while his father Elisha was also well-known duck and shorebird decoy carvers. Alston “Shorty” Burr continued the family tradition, carving miniatures using his Uncle Russ’ patterns. According to Bob Mosher, there is little difference in style between the three, and with the exception of the miniatures, one has to look at the signature of the decoy to find the artist. He adds that “Shorty” Burr’s miniatures are considered cruder than his uncle’s. The difference between the Lincoln birds and the Burr carvings, though, is like night and day. Mosher calls the Lincoln style “impressionistic”- more suggestive of a bird in action, while the Burr style is “busy”- an active, alive carving, with deep feather and wing detail.
Mosher said when he began carving for himself, “I thought everybody made decoys like Lincoln and the Burrs.” He has since carved with “most of the best carvers on the East Coast, and I learn from everybody.” He describes his style as “more impressionistic like Joe Lincoln vs. the detailed style of [the iconic East Harwich Master Carver] A. Elmer Crowell.”
An avid collector, Mosher began selling decoys to feed his “habit”. “There was a point when I was collecting that I realized you can sell these things. I carved to sell so I could buy more for my collection.” Although he began collecting different artists, he is now focused on the Hingham carvers – the Burrs and Lincoln. “I want to bring them back to Hingham.”
Indeed, Mosher himself is considered a carver of renown. He has won ribbons six times at the World Wildfowl Championship at Maryland’s Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art, and has served as a judge there as well. He also won Best of Show at the Chesapeake Challenge. He said he went to take his shorebird home after the challenge, only to find it was going to be on exhibit at the Ward Museum for six months. “I hadn’t won Best of Show there before, and I didn’t realize I couldn’t just take it home with me!”
Mosher has also taught his craft at the Hingham Historical Society under a Ward Museum program funded by a National Endowment of the Arts grant. He was chosen for the grant three years in a row, from 2009-2011. His work has also appeared at the Peabody Essex Museum, where he has also given carving demonstrations. His son also carves, and his granddaughter is showing an interest in the painting aspect of decoy art.
Bill Sarni, another Hingham carver making a name for himself, is also dedicated to preserving the craft through teaching. He said he tries to keep to what he calls the “traditional Hingham style” he saw all around as a boy growing up on Accord Pond in the 1950’s. He knew Joe Lincoln’s widow, Mary, and learned about Joe’s work from her and others. He also spent time watching Russ Burr carve his miniatures as a teenager.
While he grew up around carving and hunting equipment, he has only been carving seriously since the mid 1980’s. After he retired in 1998, he started doing research and began collecting. He also sells decoys he carves, and has a steady business of hunters who buy decoys to hunt over. He also repairs and restores collection pieces.
He says many of the carvers he sees today create better decoys in an artistic sense. Sarni explains that the original decoys were real working tools, and current ones are more for decoration. “Today they push the envelope to make them more decorative with feathers and paint to make them look real. I prefer the old, traditional, smooth style decoy, and I enjoy the history behind them.” He, too, has a nice collection of “Joe Lincolns” on display in his home.
Bill has been selected many times as one of the top traditional folk artisans in America by Early American Life Magazine. According to the magazine, the selection panel looked for authentic design and workmanship, whether the artist is reproducing or interpreting a period style. For the last 10 consecutive years, the magazine had also honored Sarni as one of the top 200 traditional craftsmen in the country.
Bill takes his inspiration from his backyard on the banks of the Weir River, where waterfowl and shore birds are all around him. The setting reminds him of the Accord Pond area of his childhood. His roots run all through the South Shore area, and all the way to the State House, where his nephew, Senator Robert Hedlund (R-Weymouth), serves.
He works out of his red barn, built for him by students from the North Bennett Street School in Boston for a timber framing class. Inside, the bright, open space is dominated by a large work table, while along the walls are photos, carving tools, patterns for various birds, works in progress, and repair jobs.
This is where most of the teaching happens, although he also conducts workshops in Nantucket. He teaches two classes per week, every year, beginning in October and continuing through the winter. He teaches a maximum of 7 or 8 at a time in either the Tuesday night or Saturday class. He wants to pass along his craft to as many people as he can. “I enjoy teaching, I tell you. I get a student, and I give him a block of wood, and I know exactly what they’re saying to themselves,” he laughs, and continues, “they’re saying, there’s no way…..then they start to get a little confidence in themselves, then they come back to the next class, year after year.”
He doesn’t advertise, and he says he has repeat students who come every year to further hone their skills. He encourages students of all levels to check his website and try their hand at creating their own piece of American Folk Art.
The tradition continues through both Bob Mosher and Bill Sarni, among many others who hold the art and history of the area sacred. Along with historic buildings, and settlers who began the history of the area, there’s another, maybe richer, history, hidden in the woods, along the rivers, ponds, and seashore all through the South Shore.
For more information:
Bob Mosher: firstname.lastname@example.org
Bill Sarni: www.wdsdecoys.com
Peter and Diane Clarke, The Sportsman’s Eye: www.sportsmanseye.com