By Connie Leinbach and Peter Vankevich
As David Styron watched decoy carvers fashion duck heads from small blocks of wood in the decoy-carving contest during the recent Ocracoke Waterfowl Festival, it reminded him of yesteryear.
“I used to hang around with those older guys as they carved,” Styron, an Ocracoke native, said. “I learned a lot–not
just about the ducks they were carving but about life. I’m lucky to have grown up then. It (carving) disappeared in the early 1980s.”
The one-hour carving contest was part of the event and five vendor/carvers tried their hand at it.
After an hour, the judges declared the head carved by Chase Luker of Swan Quarter the winner, followed by Dale Robinson of Stacy, Carteret County, and his father, Dan Robinson of Ocracoke.
This was the second annual festival presented by the Ocracoke Island Decoy Carvers Guild, formed in January 2018 by island carvers and collectors determined that the art not disappear.
Dan Robinson, this year’s featured carver, is a legend, Luker said after the contest. Luker, who is a hunting guide on the Hyde County mainland, was a first-time exhibitor this year.
“They made thousands of decoys,” he said about Robinson and his good friend Elmer Salter when both men lived in Stacy. “Once Elmer was gone, the decoys got prettier under Dan’s influence. (Dan) could paint.”
Robinson sold out his table of decoys, said John Simpson, guild president, adding that this year’s festival saw more vendors and attendees, despite a heavy rain and high winds the night before.
“He signed a lot of posters,” Simpson said about Robinson’s star treatment during the event. “Dan’s the same true gentleman as when I first met him in 1974,” he said. “You won’t find a better person.”
Simpson said next year’s featured carver will be islander William Nathan Spencer and the Ring-necked Duck will be the featured bird.
If one were looking for a big name, perhaps there would be no one bigger than Oliver “Tuts” Lawson, who brought
many of his decoys from his home in Crisfield, Md.
Born in 1938, he began carving at the age of nine under the tutelage of brothers Lem and Steve Ward who became so famous for their wildfowl carvings it led to the creation of the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art in Salisbury, Md.
Not only is Lawson a skilled carver, but his painting is remarkably detailed.
“Lem taught me to use eight paint colors,” Lawson said. Now he uses acrylic paint.
In 2018, the museum honored Tuts with the Living Legend award for his contributions to the Ward Foundation, his service to the carving community and his consummate skill as a carver.
Visitor Sarah D’Amato of Pittsboro attended the Ocracoke festival for the first time with her family during their annual spring vacation.
“It’s pretty neat to see the differences between the Maryland decoys and the Ocracoke ones,” she said as she and her daughters visited the two dozen tables laden with ducks and other waterfowl decoys.
They admired the display of tiny ducks made from pecan shells by Jim Clay of Concord, a new vendor this year.
“I’m the only man in the world who makes ducks out of pecan shells,” he said.
“These are beautiful,” said islander Linda Jackson, who admired the tiny pieces.
Another new vendor, Sarah Gill of Kill Devil Hills, displayed water fowl mural art created with naturally colorful hand-milled and lathed woods.
“I love it,” she said about the festival, echoing other vendors and visitors.
Those looking for encouragement that the island carving tradition will continue, they can look to Ocracoke School. In its recent annual Arts Week program, for the first time, decoy carving was an option. The class, taught by carver Jason Daniels, who moonlights as captain of the Ocracoke Sheriff’s Department, drew 42 students, all carving a Canvasback Duck.
In October, decoy carving will be a course, also taught by Daniels, in the revived Ocrafolk School.
The Ocracoke Island Decoy Carvers Guild’s mission is to conserve and promote decoys of the area.
“Waterfowling has been a dramatic part of Ocracoke’s heritage and this folk art needs to be kept from becoming a lost art,” Simpson said.
Membership ($25 yearly) is open to anyone and the club particularly welcomes decoy carvers, whittlers, collectors and those who would like to learn carving to join.
It holds monthly meetings in the Community Center. Check out its Facebook page for more information.