By Peter Vankevich
Even though he says his first attempt at decoy carving yielded “the ugliest bird you ever saw,” the folk-art form grabbed John Simpson back in 1975.
Simpson, who is the featured carver at this year’s Ocracoke Waterfowl Festival from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, April 23, at the Berkley Barn, is also the president of the Ocracoke Island Decoy Carvers Guild, which he helped co-found in 2018.
This will be the fourth festival, which draws carvers and aficionados from all over the eastern seaboard.
In addition to organizing the event, Simpson will have a booth to show his carvings, many of which these days are shore birds.
But duck decoys are the main heritage of island carvers and that’s where Simpson started as a teenager back in 1975.
“I always enjoyed piddling with wood and my interest in carving took off by hanging out as a young person at Corky’s Store on Down Creek Road,” he said. “Wilbur Gaskill would sit on the steps carving little birds and sold them to visitors as novelty items for $3. He had me sit next to him and showed me how to carve.”
That first attempt at carving was “out of cork from an old coastguard life jacket and it was the ugliest bird you ever saw,” he said. “It was a scaup and I chose it because it was the easiest to paint with just white, gray and black colors.”
But he comes from a family of decoy carvers, so he couldn’t give up.
He is related on his mother Patsy Gaskins Simpson’s side to one of Ocracoke’s carving legends, Gary Bragg (1881-1954).
Since that self-described inauspicious beginning, Simpson has carved hundreds of waterfowl and shorebirds.
Simpson also paints two-dimensional works and even though he has honed that skill, he says painting his carvings is his toughest challenge.
“I know it might seem funny, but I have to be in just the right mood to do the painting,” he said.
A highlight of the Waterfowl Festival is to celebrate a featured carver who gets to choose the festival’s featured species, and Simpson chose the Northern Pintail.
Previous featured carvers, David O’Neal, Dan Robinson and Nathan Spencer, all attribute their love of the art and their carving skills to mentors, family members and neighbors.
Robinson, who was the chief at the Ocracoke Coast Guard station, took him under his wing, so to speak, teaching his carving techniques.
Simpson’s early carvings might not have been as bad as he describes.
At least one of them was an inspiration for last year’s featured carver, Nathan Spencer.
Some years ago, Nathan and his wife Janet cleaned out a shed for his cousin Patsy, Simpson’s mother. He came across one of Simpson’s carvings of a bird in flight that he made when he was very young.
“I brought it home and studied it and I thought, ‘I can do that,’” Spencer said.
It is not only carving, but John has a love of the history of decoys and has built a personal collection of carvings by visiting many waterfowl festivals over the years.
“My first decoy festival goes back to 1975 in Virginia Beach,” he said. He immediately took to the fellowship of carvers, noting how helpful everyone was by sharing carving techniques.
Two of the most famous master carvers in North America are the Ward brothers, Lem (1896-1984) and Steve (1896-1976), who lived in Crisfield, Maryland, on the Eastern Shore.
Simpson fondly recalls meeting Steve at a decoy festival in Salisbury, Maryland, in 1975, who even at that young age, encouraged Simpson to become a carver.
Waterfowl decoys are now considered Americana folk art and some carvings have skyrocketed in price rising to the six and even seven figures.
Simpson’s island roots go way back.
His great grandfather, Joseph Merritt Burrus, was the second to last light keeper for the Ocracoke lighthouse and the last one to serve under the U.S. Lighthouse Service from 1929-1947.
Recently, thanks to some genealogical sleuthing by Philip Howard, Simpson discovered that he is an eleventh-generation descendant of William Howard, the alleged quartermaster for Blackbeard.
Simpson graduated from Ocracoke School in 1978, in a class of seven. The following year, he took a job with the U.S. Postal Service in Elizabeth City, which led him to Washington state in the mid-1980s.
Upon leaving the postal service in 2013, he returned to Ocracoke and soon thereafter started a music show on WOVV, Ocracoke’s community radio station, that he continues today, now called “Classic Cuts and Such with John in the Studio,” broadcast from 6 to 8 p.m. Saturdays and rebroadcast Tuesdays from 2 to 4 p.m.
Simpson also has a thriving island fig preserve business with Trudy Austin. So, it’s not unusual at island events which include vendors, to see John with a large table covered with his artwork, carvings, fig trees and fig preserves.
The Ocracoke Island Decoy Carvers Guild’s mission is to pass on the fine art of bird carving to others and it holds monthly meetings to which all are invited to attend.