Cal Kingsmill modeled a block of tupelo gum slowly into the form of a duck decoy while onlookers watched the wood he was chopping and carving take shape.
Within minutes, Kingsmill, of New Orleans, had worked the rough form into a recognizable duck decoy, a work of art that he can also put to use luring migrating ducks to his hunting blind.
Kingsmill and 36 other exhibitors from throughout the Gulf states gathered Saturday at the Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center for the inaugural Antique Wooden Decoy Hand-Crafted Collectors Decoy Show.
Both carvers and decoy collectors traded secrets and showed their wares — some worth thousands of dollars — as the crowd of visitors circulated through the center to view the hundreds of wooden decoys on display.
“They were born from the sport of hunting and grew into an art form,” said carver Steven Grigg, of Baton Rouge.
“In the 1900s, they were just a hunting tool,” Grigg said. “As decoys evolved, they became collected items.”
Parts of the late Charles Frank’s extensive decoy collection, which he donated to the center before his death, were on display, and a room at the center was dedicated Saturday in honor of Frank and his wife, Jean.
“It’s an art form because it draws the soul out,” Frank’s daughter, India, said. “It’s not just a decoy to call the birds. They’re made with love.”
Gary Lipham, who coordinated Saturday’s event, said he believed the show served as the perfect time to dedicate the Charles Frank Antique Decoy Room at the center.
“Charles influenced a carving renaissance,” Lipham said. “And that’s when we saw the working birds (decoys) taken to the ‘art’ level. We began to see clubs, and it was Charles who started organizing shows.”
Frank’s waterfowl decoy shows brought carvers and collectors from across the nation to south Louisiana for three decades. The shows offered carving contests along with exhibits that elevated waterfowl and bird carving to an art form. Some of those decoys have sold for five and six figures.
These days, Kingsmill, and his friend, Richard Schaefer, of Diamondhead, Miss., often travel to decoy shows to display their work.
“For me, it’s like therapy,” Kingsmill said. “When I have anything on my mind, I pick my knife up and it’s gone. There’s just something about working with your hand. It clarifies your mind.”
“It’s a hobby, it’s a kind of heritage and tradition,” he said. “A number of people in my family were hunters and carved their own decoys.”
But while he enjoys the craft, Kingsmill said, he also knows that duck decoy carving is a dying art. Younger hunters, who haven’t learned to carve their own wooden decoys, often turn to more affordable plastic factory decoys.
“With every carver that passes, that tradition ends,” Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center’s Claire Coco said.
“The collecting tradition has now begun,” she said. “They may not be carvers, but they are collectors. They are passing that down.”
Edmund Burke, of New Iberia, doesn’t carve duck decoys but he does collect them.
Burke said he visited Saturday’s show to “look at all of the decoys and meet other people.”
Burke said that during the past 18 months, he has collected more than 75 decoys.
“I like the older ones,” Burke said. “I like the carvers.”
Coco said the center plans to expand the decoy display to include additional aspects of collecting.
Saturday’s visitors watched demonstrations and videos, attended decoy seminars, and thronged the display tables to buy, sell and swap decoys.
Duck decoys from legendary, now-deceased carvers such as Victor Alfonso, Adam Ansardi, Mitchel LaFrance, George Fredrick, Charles Jeofrau and Nicole Vidacovich were on display as well.
“I think it’s a great thing for Baton Rouge,” Lipham said of the partnership between the Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center and the Antique Louisiana Decoy Collectors.
“It’s important to preserve the history,” he said.