The creative life of a decoy maker

For Charlie Davis, each new wooden bird was a chance to perfect his process. For his family, his decoy making helped them understand who he was.

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A wooden redhead duck decoy carved by Charles A. Davis Sr. on Martha's Vineyard, hand-painted by Vineyard artist Thomas DeMont — Photo by Chuck Davis

The practice of creating decoys in order to lure fowl to hunt has a long and rich history in New England. Native Americans began binding reeds and stalks into shapes resembling local birds centuries ago. On Martha’s Vineyard, generations of Islanders created decoys for hunting, including the late Chilmark selectman Herbert R. Hancock. As the opportunities for hunting subsided, Islanders such as Chilmark painter Stan Murphy — who would go on to write a book about the art of the decoy (see box)— began collecting them. Decoy artists emerged, and entered their works in shows at the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Fair, or sold them to eager collectors. One Island decoy fetched more than $22,000 at auction several years ago — though that would have astonished the fisherman, Benjamin Warren Pease, who carved it.

One passionate practitioner, Charlie Davis, known Island-wide for many things — among them being the longtime principal of the new regional high school — created decoys not for hunting, or art or collecting, but as with many Islanders and their hobbies, for the sheer pleasure of it. Few outside his family and close friends knew about his decoy hobby. After his death in 1984, his wooden ducks were disseminated among his three children and his widow, Geraldine. After Geraldine’s death last year, her daughter Kathy Sollitto and her daughter, the painter Kara Taylor, took the collections out of the attic. Times contributor Valerie Sonnenthal talked with Charlie Davis’s children and granddaughter about the decoys he left behind, and their memories of  a man with a simple Island passion.

In 1959, Charles A. Davis Sr., known as Charlie, moved with his wife and three young children from rural Maine to Martha’s Vineyard to become the first principal of the newly regionalized high school, a job he would hold for more than 20 years. Charlie was a true Renaissance man, according to his children: He played instruments (something he encouraged in each of them, and they do to this day); he cooked; he renovated and restored, room by room, his first Island home on New York Avenue (presently the Book Den East) in Oak Bluffs; he fished and enjoyed nature; he tied and sold fishing flies; he owned and operated a restaurant (the Dock Street Delicatessen: We don’t make sandwiches – we build ’em!) – just to name a few things.

And there was another thing: he loved to carve decoys, using homemade patterns.

Chuck Davis, the middle son, an underwater photographer and cinematographer in California, remembers that his father had a creative sensibility and deep appreciation for the arts and was “always doing creative things, like making sand sculptures in the ’60s, making fine furniture, playing the saxophone.” He grew to appreciate decoys as an Island art form, done by friends such as Herbie Hancock, who made decoys to hunt with.

From his brother-in-law, Charlie inherited a Shopsmith — a lathe-based multitool that uses a single motor to perform as lathe, table saw, sander, and drill press.

Mark, an award-winning teacher now residing in the Bay Area, is the youngest son and the one who, beginning in 1970, helped his dad make the decoys. Each bird, he said, was a chance to perfect his process. “He talked to anybody and everybody who liked to talk [decoys],” he said. “He developed a library around his passion and made an effort to see what other decoy makers were doing on the Island.” Mark has several decoys that have moved with him wherever he has lived. He keeps a goose on his dining table and another on display. “When I’m looking at them,” he said,  “I’m not looking at a bird, but the cellar of our house on New York Avenue; I see him in his T-shirt covered in sawdust, and his glasses perched on the end of his nose.”

Chuck remembers those basement days. “I have vivid memories of my Dad working on his decoys down in the basement of that old Victorian house on New York Avenue,” Chuck told me. “This was around 1971 or ’72, when I was in high school. I remember the old Shopsmith lathe spinning and rumbling as my dad was carving away — sawdust flying all over the place down there — and the sounds of the lathe permeating our house. I have vivid memories of boxes of partially made decoys in various states of completion piled in boxes in the basement next to the Shopsmith, awaiting further sanding and painting.”

Chuck remembers watching his dad for hours as he traced out the patterns and worked on ducks, terns, and geese. “The redheads are the ones that I remember that really stand out,” he said. “He’d carve these bodies of various species, and there would be boxes full of them. He’d shape them out first and then put the heads together.”

His father would glue and laminate the birch boards together to get the thickness he wanted so he could carve them. He was a good woodworker, using inlay and intricate design details.

Kathy Sollitto of Chilmark is Charlie Davis’s only daughter and oldest child. She was already in college when her father, then in his 40s, began making decoys. Several months ago, Kathy was preparing for a move to Oak Bluffs, to the home of her late mother, Geraldine Cronig, who had married Rob Cronig after Charlie’s death. She had most treasures already packed, but she pointed out one decoy, a favorite, painted by Tom DeMont, the owner of the Edgartown Scrimshaw Gallery and one of the country’s top scrimshaw artists. Her father’s style and craftsmanship evolved over time, refining the shape of his decoys, the line of the neck, becoming clearly more elegant. She said that Charlie hired Tom DeMont to paint the more intricate birds.

“I remember my Dad lamenting to me that he just ‘didn’t have the patience’ to do the fine feathering and detail work with paints,” Chuck said. “He even asked my wife Norma, who attended the Minneapolis Art Institute, if she would consider painting some of his decoys for him when we were on the Vineyard visiting from Los Angeles. That always amazed me, as it seemed to me that it took a tremendous amount of patience to carve those decoys in the first place. But my dad used a more basic style, with broader strokes of the brush, while Tommy’s style had much more dimension and detail to it.”

When she cleaned out her mother’s house last winter, Kathy found a whole collection of tiny unpainted birds — patterns — which she gave to her daughter, Kara Taylor, the artist, to use in her own work: to paint them or do whatever she wants with them.

Charlie never exhibited his decoys, never sold them, never entered any in the Ag Fair.

“I think there are two parts to this,” said Mark. “First, quite simply, my father’s satisfaction came through the creative process. He loved reading about other bird carvers and wanted those close to him to share in his passion — he would give birds to his friends and family members. Second, because my father was always trying to perfect his art, I don’t think he would have been comfortable entering his work in anything like the Ag Fair. My father had a deep respect for many bird carvers such as Joe Cerruti and Island bird carvers such as the late Herbert Hancock and William McChessney. He would never tell anyone that he was of the same level as those men. In the end it was the creative process where he received his satisfaction.”

Chuck Davis said that after photographing the ducks for this story, he got to thinking about the feelings that his dad’s decoys conveyed to him over the years. “When I pulled my dad’s decoys off our living room shelf and  dusted them off last September,” he said, “I was again amazed at how there is a personality to each of these birds. And that is partly the inspired spirit of the animal that my father loved and admired, which he put into his work. He really did love the outdoors and all wildlife. But it is also a part of my father’s own creative spirit — I really do see and feel some of my father in those carvings. You can see where his hand guided his cutting  tools over the wood surface, and how he smoothed it with sanding paper over those curved avian bodies.

“He had the ability to transform  a solid block of white cedar, or birch, and morph it  into the form of a beautiful migratory seabird that seems to have its own personality — and reflect its own light, shape, and form.”

Decoy makers on Martha’s Vineyard

Duck decoys are now collectors’ items on Martha’s Vineyard, but for centuries, decoys were used strictly to lure ducks for the hunt.

— Excerpted and adapted from “Island Gunners Blended Purpose and Craft” by Nelson Sigelman, originally published in 1999

Before transplanted city folk defined Vineyard rural quality, when a black dog was considered a hunting companion and not a souvenir icon, Island waterfowlers shot over decoys carved by men able to imbue blocks of cedar with natural honesty and grace.

These days, molded plastic has replaced wood as the material of choice, and spacious houses stand in place of unadorned cabins along the shores of the Vineyard’s great ponds.

Noted Island artist, muralist, and decoy collector Stan Murphy, in his book “Martha’s Vineyard Decoys” (David R. Godine, pub., 1978), described Benjamin D. Smith of Oak Bluffs, born in 1866, as a carver of some of the finest decoy ducks ever seen, a loner “who made his decoys for the ducks only, not for men, yet his carvings are a distillation of great natural talent, the keenest powers of observation, and superb technique.”

In the conclusion of his book, he wrote of the old decoys: “They were made only to toll the birds, not to leave for posterity the evidence of man’s ability to create from common materials things of truth and occasional great beauty. The secret of the fascination of old decoys, of the endless variations of their small forms, lies somehow in the word unselfconscious. They pay no conscious homage, as do other art forms, to God or to man or to ego; their sole intent is to convince a living duck that they too are alive. Thus their rare integrity and finally, their immortality.”

Herbert Hancock, lobsterman and long-time Chilmark selectman, who died at age 71 in 2001, began duck hunting with his father and grandfather in the marshes and ponds of Chilmark. Herbert started carving decoys more than 65 years ago for the same reason that his great-grandfather — Russell Hancock, a whaler, fisherman, and farmer — carved them: to attract ducks. It was a time when Islanders went hunting and fishing to put food on the table and could ill afford to buy decoys.

“I wanted some bluebill and widgeon to go duck hunting,” said Herbert. He decided he could make a better decoy than the few he had available.

“I liked to do carpentry work in the summer, and was around a wood shop with tools and extra pieces of wood lying around there, so I just carved duck decoys,” he said with no reference to his own skills and natural ability.

In high school he sat in study hall and carved decoy heads. The graduating class was all of 27 students. Later, when he went away to Wentworth Institute in Boston, he sold his decoys for $3 apiece.

“I thought I was doing real good,” he said.

Herbert stopped duck hunting 30 years ago when ducks, and opportunities to go places he had hunted as a boy, slowly disappeared. But his love and appreciation of wooden decoys, particularly the decoys of Vineyard carvers, never diminished.

Spare and economical in word and deed, he gave no long-winded statements. Asked what makes a good decoy, he cocked his head and with an expression that he reserved for the obvious, he answered directly and to the point: “If it looks like a duck.”