Its Heyday Long Past, Wildlife Wood Carving Looks to Broaden Its Appeal

Competitions are getting scarce. Crowds are dwindling. Collectors are dying out. Can this American art form survive?

When Gary Eigenberger was 14 years old, he went out behind his grandparents’ tavern in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, took a pocket knife to a two-by-four, and whittled a duck. That was nearly 50 years ago. He’s been carving ever since. A full-time artist since 1999, Eigenberger wrests vivid scenes of avian life from blocks of wood: a Common Loon spreading its wings over water, a Least Bittern taking flight from a reed, a deceptively lifelike Ruddy Duck decoy, painstakingly painted by hand.

His art form is known as wildfowl wood carving. Each of Eigenberger’s pieces starts with extensive photo research, followed by a clay model whose contours he sketches onto basswood, his preferred medium. Then he carves, first with a bandsaw, followed by smaller and smaller knives. Rotary bits and burning tools help add texture and detail. To sculpt feathers, Eigenberger sometimes burns up to 160 barb lines per square inch.

“This medium requires multiple talents,” he says. “You have to be a sculptor, a designer, a painter, an engineer. You have to roll all of these professions into one art form, and I think that’s what makes it so unique.”

Eigenberger has been able to sustain a career in carving, but he and others believe its future is in danger. They’re getting older, and they fear that, in an era of instant gratification, not enough young people will dedicate themselves to a demanding form whose collectors are dying out and selling their pieces. “This thing could disappear and be forgotten if somebody doesn’t come out and say something,” Eigenberger says. “If this dies, I think a lot is going to go with it.”

Art or craft?

Wildfowl wood carving can trace its roots to the Native American practice of weaving duck decoys from reeds. Sport hunters learned this approach, and by the 18th century began using decoys made from softwoods like cedar and pine. Around the turn of the 20th century, some carvers started making decoys for display, not utility, and collectors began to take notice, Eigenberger says. Carving’s artistic value grew further when the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 banned commercial hunting of migratory birds, reducing demand for decoys as practical tools.

To carvers and collectors, the pieces are works of art—vibrant sculptures that showcase the splendor of birds. But they recognize that many people view carving as a craft, a kind of wooden taxidermy. The distinction is important, they say; Eigenberger believes that wildfowl wood carving, at the level he practices it, must eventually be viewed as art to survive. Greater prestige, he hopes, will help attract a wider audience—and more collectors. 

One way to gain that attention could be through interpretive carving, according to San Diego-based carver Daniel Montano. This style allows artists to play around with form without adhering to photorealism. Montano, who works a full-time construction job and carves in his free time, says these designs allow him to best express his creative vision and have earned him his greatest recognition. In 2016, Montano won the top prize in the interpretive category at the Ward World Championship in Ocean City, Maryland, the most prestigious event in carving. He’d been thinking about the design for his winning piece, a Picasso-influenced Ruddy Duck titled Azul, since high school. 

Montano has also used his interpretive skills to warn of carving’s precarious future without broader—and younger—appeal. Flying Into Extinction depicts another Ruddy Duck, but one that appears to be falling apart in flight, its skeleton exposed and feathers scattered below. Montano entered this piece at the 2017 Ward show, with a note explaining that the art form couldn’t survive without new blood. It won third place in the People’s Choice category. “When you hear ‘duck decoy,’ it doesn’t really sound like a work of art,” he tells Audubon magazine. “I want carving to broaden up so people realize that this is big. It's not just little decoys, not just little bird carvings—this is art.”

Someone who has always seen the form’s artistic value is Doug Miller. He started collecting carvings in the mid-’50s and now owns more than 3,000 of them. In a sign of how the works have straddled the line between fine art and crafts, Miller loans many of his decoys and decorative pieces to organizations ranging from the Smithsonian Museum of American Art to the country’s largest Bass Pro Shops location, in Memphis. An outdoorsman and founder of a packaging business, he says his investment in the collection totals somewhere in the seven figures. 

“We're rather taken by the beauty in the intricacies and the talent it took to make these,” says Miller, who notes that duck hunters and other sportsmen and women, not typical art collectors, have sustained wildfowl wood carving. While he loves the form, he recognizes it’s in trouble. “It’s true: As a generation of collectors, we’ve seen better days. A lot of this is in the past.”

In the 1960s, carving was popular enough that competitions sprang up around the U.S. and Canada. The events gave carvers a chance to talk shop and learn from each other, and to sell their work to eager collectors. With a core of young, enthusiastic artists and the patrons to pay them, wildfowl wood carving by the ’70s was expanding from simple decoys to the hyper realistic birds and elaborate scenes that Eigenberger and other carvers specialize in today. These annual gatherings powered that growth, but there aren’t many left.

“Put it this way: There are more shows that are gone than ones that are still here,” says Pat Godin, a 17-time winner at the Ward World Championship. He estimates that in the ’80s there were about 15 major wood carving shows, compared to around 7 today. 

Shoulder-to-shoulder crowds once flocked to the Ward competition, held annually since 1971. Judges took hours to evaluate all of the high-quality pieces. “There were so many people, you couldn't see what was on the table half the time,” Eigenberger says. “It was amazing what it was then.” The show still attracts artists from as far away as Australia and Japan, but carvers have noticed a slow decline in attendance and participation over the past 30 years. As the crowds dwindled, so did the prize money. Through most of the ’80s and into the early ’90s, the top prize at the Ward was $20,000 for a decorative life-size wildfowl. Today, that prize has shrunk to $6,000

A new generation

The Ward Foundation canceled this year’s championship due to COVID-19, including the youth competition that veteran carvers view as an important once-a-year opportunity to stoke a love of the form among a younger crowd. As Godin sees it, established artists like himself have a responsibility to find ways to bring new generations into the fold. “You can teach a young kid how to carve, but for them to continue doing it, there has to be a passion that comes from inside,” Godin says. “And how to find that or inspire it? That's the big question.”

Montano hasn’t had any luck answering the inspiration question when it comes to the two teens he knows best—his sons. They’ve shown natural talent with an airbrush but simply have no interest in picking up their father’s passion. “It’s just so hard to get any young kid into this stuff, because the cool and the wow factor is just not there,” he says. “You give them a laptop and they’ll choose that over a decoy any day. Video games? They don’t even think twice. They look at a decoy and say, ‘Woah, my grandpa had one of those.’ ” 

Montano’s sons and other young people may look askance at wooden ducks, but some, like 16-year-old Catie Lynch of Maine, have become passionate proponents of carving. Lynch has been honing her skills since the fall of 2017, when her neighbor, a retired science teacher, introduced her to the form. “When I started, I pretty much knew Mallards, and now I know all kinds of ducks,” she says. “It opens a whole new world.”

Since then, she has participated in four competitions, taking home ribbons from the Ward event in 2018 in 2019. Last year her Green-winged Teal decoy won first place in the show’s youth division of the marsh duck category. Her love of carving has also spread to her younger siblings and inspired her family’s love of birds. 

“They've all really taken this love for wood carving and pushed it in a direction that I really didn't expect, which is birding,” says Rhonda Lynch, Catie’s mother, herself a fine artist inspired by nature. “Now, whenever we go on a walk or a hike, there's binoculars and cameras involved, and lots of studying of field guides and all of these things that is a great offshoot of their carving.”

Catie was disappointed she didn’t get to show her Northern Pintail drake at this year’s Ward show, but she says she’s going to keep sharing her passion with anyone who will listen. Last summer, she held a show at her local library with her two siblings. “I think carvers really understand that they need to get the younger generation interested in this,” she says. “So every carver I ever met has been really supportive and really just thrilled to see other young people doing it.” 

Zealous newcomers like Catie give veteran carvers hope that wildfowl wood carving will continue to find an appreciative audience. “It would really hurt me to think that this art form is going to decline to the point where, when I'm gone, it’s not going to be here anymore,” Godin says. “I just hope that doesn't happen.” 

While Godin doubts the market can support new full-time carvers, he is optimistic that the art form will endure. Next year’s Ward World Championship could spark more excitement than it has in a long time, he says, provided it’s safe to gather again. Artists will be itching to show off their latest work to an eager crowd, catch up with old friends, and maybe sell a few pieces along the way. The packed shows he remembers may never return, but wildfowl wood carving will live to see another year.