AN ENDANGERED SPECIES

Cal Kingsmill’s decoys

FRANK METHE PHOTOGRAPH

The national news is streaming across the screen of the television in Cal Kingsmill’s living room in the battered one-bedroom house that sits somewhere on the dividing line between the 9th and 7th Wards, a whisker away from being nestled under an elevated portion of Interstate 610.

The words coming from the television screen are by now painfully familiar: “BP … disaster in the Gulf … cleanup … seafood.”

News anchor Brian Williams closes out the newscast with, “There are 49 states … then there’s Louisiana!”

Few people appreciate the catastrophe like Kingsmill, a lifelong hunter and, by many accounts, the Rembrandt of waterfowl decoy carvers.

Kingsmill’s work, and the work of masters he has emulated and studied, ring the room: shelf after shelf of meticulously hand-carved, sanded and polished widgeons, spoonbills, mallards, pintails, gray ducks … hundreds of lifeless creatures on the shelves peering down with lifeless eyes at Kingsmill as if to ask, “What now?”

“The teal season usually opens around Sept. 18,” Kingsmill says, “I’m sure this season will be closed. The teals are the first to migrate to Louisiana. Then others come. It depends on the species. I hate to think about it; birds coming down and landing in that oil. You see pelicans flopping around in that goop, dying. It breaks my heart. I keep thinking maybe their instincts and the smell of that oil will keep them away – or turn them around. I don’t think I’ll be hunting this season.”

Certainly, Kingsmill will stay busy: busy running the family’s wrecker service with its fleet of monstrous wreckers that have pulled many a company’s trucks out of harm’s way over the years.

He and wife Sharon will busy themselves taking care of their protected flock: an 18-year-old mallard hen, who “is blind and can barely walk, but we love her,” a ring neck dove they keep in the kitchen, a baby parrot and a flock of chickens they keep in the backyard. “We had a goose that was 23 years old ... but he died,” Kingsmill throws in for good measure.

But mostly Kingsmill will do what he has been doing most of his life – and what he loves best – carve decoys.
He sticks with cypress root and tupelo gum, the basic woods that are the favorites of most Louisiana carvers. He admits that what with all the expressways, highways and concrete all around, getting to these woods has become a daunting task that he no longer wants to tackle. So, he calls on a wood supplier.

“He doesn’t cut much,” Kingsmill says. “But when he does, he calls me and I meet him in Lafayette and buy what he brings. I wouldn’t use anything else.”   

Over the years, that kind of dedication to detail that borders on the persnickety has lifted Kingsmill’s work to the upper echelon of the folk art of decoy carving, an unspoken but certainly a pantheonic tribute to those masters in whose company Kingsmill may now feel comfortable.

While he no longer teaches nor competes (“But I do throw a bird into the game now and then …”) he’s quick to offer advice to any young carver out there who has a clump of wood in one hand and a penknife in the other.

“I think [decoy carving is] becoming a lost art,” Kingsmill says. “I’d say 99 percent of the people who are looking for decoys settle for going into a Walmart and buying one made of plastic.”

“Lost art!” he says the words again and just shakes his head. “It’s like so many things we grew up with and appreciated. Mass production has killed off a lot of our folk art. Just like that oil spill out there in the Gulf is killing off our way of life here in Louisiana. And once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

But what’s real are those decoys up on the shelf. And the countless others in Cal Kingsmill’s attic, the ones he walks past and picks up one after another as he pays tribute to their builders.

“This one was made by Mitchell LaFrance,” he says. “This one, George Frederick Jr. …”

Kingsmill goes through the names with a slow reverence as though he were going through a roll call of the heavenly saints themselves: “Then there was the Hutchinson family: Charles, Rudy and Eric … and Willie Badeaux …” And unintentionally he places himself in the company of the folk art giants: “This one … and this one – these are mine,” he says.

Brian Williams and the dire television newscast have faded into some mindless reality show. But the lifeless duck decoys painstakingly crafted by Cal Kingsmill and other masters of a fading art have not forgotten Williams’ message. They still look down from the shelf and ask, “What now?”
 

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