When It Comes to Art, Maryland Just Wings It
What began out of necessity has been elevated to the status of art form. Hunters eager to put food on their tables began making birds from wood centuries ago, hoping that the carvings would fool ducks, geese and other wildfowl, lure them in for a closer look, and make them easy targets.
These days, birds aren’t the only creatures attracted by decoys; plenty of humans interested in waterfowl carvings, too. Somewhere along the way, people realized that decoy carving takes true talent and that the men and women who specialize in this craft should be regarded as much as any other artist.
Nowhere is that evolution more apparent than in Maryland, which not only boasts an array of museums that feature decoy collections, but which also plays host to a number of festivals centered around the carvings and their creators.
Each year in mid-November, for example, the town of Easton on Maryland’s Eastern Shore is transformed into a showplace for the carvings and paintings of more than 450 waterfowl artists. The Waterfowl Festival, which began in 1970, annually attracts nearly 20,000 people during a three-day weekend. Besides serving as an excellent opportunity to purchase art, the event offers visitors a chance to watch carvers at work and learn about the craft through seminars. www.waterfowlfestival.org
Humans aren’t the only ones who flock to Maryland at festival time. The event takes place at the same time as the migration of Canada geese, so the sky is peppered with V-shaped formations and the air resonates with honking sounds.
The Waterfowl Festival is considered one of the finest of its kind anywhere in the world. Another internationally acclaimed event for carvers, collectors and the curious is the Ward World Championship Wildfowl Carving Competition, which takes place in Ocean City each spring. There are 38 divisions of competition, seminars and field trips; world champions from the competition receive cash prizes and the carvings become part of the Ward Museum’s permanent collection.
On a smaller -- but no less impressive -- scale, several museums and towns throughout the state incorporate decoy carving into local festivals that celebrate the state’s Chesapeake Bay heritage. A complete listing of those festivals is available in the state’s annual calendar of events, which can be ordered by calling 800-719-5900 or accessed through the state’s tourism web site, www.visitmaryland.org.
Maryland’s Decoy Collections
Decoy carving has played such a prominent role in Maryland’s history that a number of museums in the state have dedicated exhibit space and their facilities to display carvings. Large or small collections, all of them are worth a visit.
Calvert Marine Museum
14150 Solomons Island Road, Solomons
A collection of duck, swan and goose decoys is on exhibit at this Southern Maryland museum, which gets special marks for its child-friendly approach to educating visitors. Other highlights include the Wm. B. Tennison, an old oyster buy-boat that offers cruises around Solomons Harbor and along the Patuxent River; and the Drum Point Lighthouse, which is open for exploration.
Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum
Mill Street at Navy Point, St. Michaels
Here, at what many consider a model museum of regional history, displays include boats, bay crafts and memorabilia; an aquarium of bay life; the Hooper Strait Lighthouse; and a decoy collection. The museum is one of the highlights of a trip to the quaint town of St. Michaels.
Havre de Grace Decoy Museum
215 Giles Street, Havre de Grace
Decoys carved by Madison Mitchell, Paul Gibson and others are on display in the museum, which is located by the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay. A diorama of lifelike figures of Mitchell and his friends gives visitors a glimpse of a decoy workshop. Working carvers demonstrate their craft on weekends.
J. Millard Tawes Historical Museum
3 Ninth Street at Somers Cove Marina, Crisfield
Established to honor former Governor J. Millard Tawes, who hailed from Crisfield, this museum is a testament to both the man and his town. Exhibits profile Tawes, the local art and folklore of the area, the region’s Indian heritage, and the history and development of Crisfield’s seafood industry. The museum also includes an impressive decoy collection. Crisfield, after all, was home to Lem and Steve Ward, two brothers who were known around the world for their carvings.
Museum of Eastern Shore Life
126 Dulin Clark Road, Centreville
This museum highlights the day-to-day activities of Eastern Shore residents, from farming to working the waters. The collection includes: household appliances; farm machinery; kitchen gadgets; oyster tongs, crab floats, clam rakes and other tools used by watermen; and about a dozen hand-carved decoys.
Upper Bay Museum
219 Walnut Street, North East
Tucked away in the National Historic District of North East, the museum features an extensive collection of hunting, fishing and boating artifacts native to the Upper Chesapeake region. Decoys and guns are part of the hunting display.
Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art
909 S. Shumaker Drive, Salisbury
Named for Lem and Steve Ward, Eastern Shore brothers known internationally for their carving talents, this museum traces the evolution of decoys from hunter’s tool to art form. Videos and interpretive displays unravel the history and development of carving. Displays highlight the work of the Wards, as well as nearly 30 years of best-in-the-world championship carvings.
20880 Rock Hall Avenue, Rock Hall
Dedicated to preserving the history of Maryland’s watermen, this museum gleaned its collection from Eastern Shore residents. Exhibits depict decoy carving, oystering, crabbing and fishing, and a reproduction of a shanty gives visitors a better understanding of a waterman’s living conditions.