Wildfowl carvers, collectors in deep
Gerard Ruth admits to having a chronic disease.
It’s not life threatening, but, for years, his family has been searching for ways to cleanse his body of the virulent passion he has for collecting Louisiana art, especially antique waterfowl decoys.
In his next breath, the Baton Rouge furniture dealer ID’d the carrier who infected him.
“Ben Kleinpeter,” Ruth said. “He did it, and I’ve loved every minute of it. Louisiana has treasures in our Sportsman’s Paradise, and decoys stand at the top of the list.”
There are stories like Ruth’s for everyone who attended the Louisiana Wildfowl Carvers and Collectors Guild meeting Wednesday in Metairie.
Last week was for putting the final touches on the group’s 36th annual Louisiana Wildfowl Festival competition, Saturday and Sunday at the Castine Center in Mandeville. Club boss Richard Reeves directed the carving divisions, and Joan Bonner handled the art and photography competitions.
“It’s a chance for the public to see Louisiana’s true art form,” life-long carver Billy Hanemann said. “It’s a chance to see the cutting edge of bird carving, the tools used today like grinders and burning tools that give carvers the ability to fashion each barb of a feather on a bird.
“They can see how much work goes into the detail for each carving, down to the correct color and pupil in the eyes.”
Hanemann will display some of his work, all done, he said, “with old-fashioned tools because I carve old-fashioned birds” the decoys most Louisiana outdoorsmen in decades long past used to lure birds.
Hanemann was introduced to the craft by his uncle Jimmie Hanemann, a New Orleans tire dealer who decided to collect and try to preserve the old decoys.
“Uncle Jimmie ran ads in the newspaper that he’d swap two plastic decoys for one wooden one,” Hanemann said.
“People thought he was absolutely crazy for wanting wooden decoys. They were heavy, and they’d break, but the response (to the ad) made him the largest plastic decoy dealer in the state.”
Hanemann said his uncle’s fascination with decoys was infectious.
“I started taking industrial arts, that’s woodworking, in (New Orleans) public school and took it from the seventh grade through the 12th grade. I started carving miniature decoys when I was 15 years old. It was a still a hobby, but I was making seven-fifty ($7.50) for each miniature and that was good money. Heck, we were cutting lawns for $5, and I continued carving in college.”
A story by newspaper writer Maude O’Brien told the world that Hanemann was “carving his way through college and that spurred him to what he called “carving at a different level.”
Among others with the same passion is Chris Weaver, whose dad, Donald Sr., was a carver and one of those who bit on Jimmie Hanemann’s offer.
“Dad carved dos gris (scaup), and we’d lug those heavy decoys on every hunt,” Weaver said. “I was a little guy when he swapped out those decoys, maybe Mr. Jimmie gave him an extra (plastic) decoy for a goose decoy, but I remember him and my older brother coming home with the new decoys and Dad ... painting the new decoys because he wanted the right colors.”
Weaver said he had a chance, years later, to see Jimmie Hanemann’s collection and wished he would have had a camera that day because the display was “awesome.”
When Weaver’s dad became a Guild charter member, it launched his hobby and his job. Weaver attended LSU Dental School to become a dental technician.He makes teeth for the school’s patients. He said the technical side of his occupation led him to larger pieces.
He recently began carving fish, and will have a carved replica of Doc Kennedy’s world-record red snapper on display next weekend, along with a turkey modeled after a jake decoy his brother uses on turkey hunts.
“The reason we have so many great carvers here is that we have the wood. We can go to the (Mississippi) river and find cypress and that makes a big difference,” Weaver said.
Festival visitors will see John Scallon’s display that will feature his “Best in the World” 2012 winner of a pair of floating, life-size wood ducks and can see Cal Kingsmill carve decoys with a hatchet.
“I still use my decoys to hunt, maybe as many as 30-35 at a time,” Kingsmill said. “They just sit more naturally in the water than plastic decoys.”
But the Festival’s thrust is in the art.
“The club itself is not allowing this art to die,” Weaver said. “We have people come and go, the older folks pass away, and we know how much time they devoted to artwork that got better and better. I know they pushed me to get better and better and to keep alive the memory of the old timers who would have been forgotten.”
For Hanemann, it’s about being a Louisiana outdoorsman, too.
“This art is original. It’s part of our culture of hunting and fishing. Carving decoys originated because men wanted to put food on the table. Now, we’ve gone way beyond a decoy. What we’re doing today approaches art, if it’s not art already.”