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Decoy Maker Carves a Niche in Subtle Craft

November 29, 1990|PATRICIA MACK NEWTON

Poway woodcarver Don Jennings has a lot of feathers in his cap.

A veteran carver of duck decoys, he has won numerous national honors for his intricately detailed and lifelike waterfowl sculptures.

The art and appreciation of decoy carving has enjoyed a resurgence on both a national and international level in the past several years. A highly competitive art form, carvers of all levels of proficiency compete for recognition and cash prizes. In San Diego, there will be a major competition and auction in February.

Each bird is eligible to show nationally for one year. A single carving can log as many as 30,000 miles via UPS on its migratory route from one competition to the next. By the time it comes home to roost for good, its "pedigree" or list of accomplishments is attached and the owner who commissioned the artist to do the carving takes possession of the bird.

A full decorative decoy can cost $950 while the service class or traditional gunning decoys will run about $450. Larger, more ornate species, such as swans, cost more.

Before he became a decoy carver, Jennings had often used commercially produced decoys while hunting. He viewed them simply as tools to attract his quarry.

He attended his first decoy show as a curious spectator in 1983. "When I saw my first decorative duck, I couldn't believe it wasn't real. I had to keep going back to it to get as close a look as possible," he said.

He started out carving the decorative floating decoys, considered the most beautiful, detailed, lifelike and prestigious of the carvings. "These birds are so realistic that they actually feel like a real bird," Jennings said. "It has every feather bar and shaft burnt in."

As a respite from the laborious task of painting these ornate birds, Jennings has also tried his hand at creating the less-detailed, functional service decoys.

Jennings believes that his background as a commercial artist has given him an edge over the competition. He is now experimenting with more unorthodox movements in his carvings, like preening action which are much more difficult to render. "It's gotten so competitive now that unless you do something unusual, yours won't stand apart from someone else's pose of the same species. Let's face it, ducks are ducks," Jennings said.

Some of the nuances of the carvings: a decoy is never shiny and it cannot have any indentations which retain water. The reflection of light would signal a wary duck that something was amiss and it would avoid the area. "Water off a duck's back" holds a different meaning for the precision-minded decoy artist.

Decoys must also self-right from any position in the water. They are judged while in tanks of water and must comply with strict rules governing their floating positions.

While acting as judge, Jennings has seen ducks literally fall apart in the tank because a water-soluble glue was used. He's seen them sink to the bottom and watched them involuntarily "molt" their perfect paint jobs.

Jennings advises anyone interested in the art of decoy carving to start slowly and keep expectations in perspective. "Do whatever is fun for you. If you can't do a decorative duck, then do a traditional hunting decoy, or a miniature one," he said.

The California Wildfowl Arts Festival will be Feb. 16-17 at the Princess Resort, 1404 W. Vacation Road, San Diego. The work of more than 250 carvers from the United States and Canada will be featured. Show hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Cost is $5 for adults; under 16 free. Additional information available at 421-1034.

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