Art of the Decoy | Midwest Living

Art of the Decoy

If you’ve never considered ducks as art, you should spend a little time with the work of Randy Clarke. Like any good artist or singer or chef, Randy’s gift to his audience is interpreting ordinary things in such a way that we realize how much we’ve been overlooking all along. In his case, it’s ducks, carved from white cedar and basswood into decoys so popular that, despite Randy’s best efforts to retire, people keep asking him to carve more.

The ducks spring to life in a metal shop set back in the woods a little inland from the western shore of Michigan’s Saginaw Bay. Inside, there’s a wood stove that cuts the chill of northern autumns and comes complete with a dog snoozing on a worn pillow nearby. A thin coat of sawdust covers every workbench, saw and chair, marking the migration of thousands of ducks from lumber to collector’s item.

On the Tuesday afternoon I dropped in, Randy was teaching one of his carving/painting classes to six older guys hunched over ducks and orioles in various stages of creation. Randy looks the part of a waterfowling Geppetto, with his leather apron, gray mustache and glasses perched at the end of his nose. He leans over a project, suggesting the addition of a little raw umber (not burnt umber, he clarifies) to perfect the color of a duck’s plumage. “You have to paint it one feather at a time to get the subtleties,” Randy says.

Randy guesses that over the years he’s carved 4,000 to 5,000 decoys and taught 3,000 to 4,000 students. His goal is to pass along an eye for the details of a duck’s anatomy, aided by a shop full of bird photos, mounted birds and paper templates. “Many of the old decoys were cartoons, caricatures of the duck,” Randy says. He quotes Auguste Rodin as he explains that truly understanding a sculpture means touching, not just viewing, it. Even when carving a working hunting decoy, Randy can’t keep himself from adding the extra curve of a wing, the fine lines of paint that ramp up the realism. “If you painted a decoy black, it would probably work just as well,” he muses. “But then you’d have to sit there and look at that all day.”

As the class winds down, the guys tuck tools back into drawers and slip on their jackets. I watch them go, jealous of the skills they’ve developed under Randy’s guidance, as well as the long afternoons they spend in this shop, listening to Randy’s favorite Celtic CDs as they work. It’s hard to argue when Randy reflects, “I’ve never done meditation, but I think this is it.”