Wood Duck Decoys by Cal Kingsmill.
A self-proclaimed “folk artist,” Cal Kingsmill is the contemporary king of a type of art that emerged more than 1,000 years ago. “It is the only true art form that was started in America by Native Americans,” Kingsmill says. “All other [practiced] art forms have roots in Europe.”
Kingsmill has “worked hunting decoys,” for almost 30 years. He crafts every one with his hands, a knife and sandpaper—no hand grinders—out of tupelo gum and cypress root woods.
Kingsmill picks the wood, working it so the wood grain runs parallel with the bill of the decoy, giving it strength. Once he can see the duck in a block of wood, he draws it on the wood, then “takes out the body,” carving the head out of another block so as not to waste any of the wood. Since the neck can be very vulnerable, he inserts a wooden dowel through the neck and into the body, giving it extra strength. After that, “the rest is all sandpaper and knife work until it’s time to paint,” Kingsmill says.
Why all the concentration on strength? Unlike most decoys made today, these are not limited to mantels and other interior perches—every one of his decoys are strong, balanced and ride perfectly in water so Kingsmill and his customers can use them for hunting. “Being out in nature and hunting as a young boy with my father and brother, we used old-time carvers’ decoys. It gave me a respect for the art form and a desire to follow in their footsteps,” Kingsmill says.
Cal Kingsmill working on the body of a duck
Though his decoys are true to the traditions of the legendary Cajun carvers—George Frederick Jr. (1907-1977), Charles (1921-1995) and Rudy Hutchinson (1923-2006), Charles Joefrau (1913-1983) and Mitchell Lafrance (1882-1979)—Kingsmill is careful to differentiate his ducks from theirs. “Having met and carved with some of the old ones before they died, inspired me and keeps me going,” Kingsmill says.
His day job as part of the 40-year-old, heavy-duty towing and recovery business his father established doesn’t keep Kingsmill from his “chosen profession—art … whether it be painting, drawing or crafting decoys or birds.”
Cal Kingsmill testing his duck decoys to make sure they float properly on the water.
Instead of completing each decoy separately from start to finish, Kingsmill works on multiple decoys at the same time, “usually carving or painting every day and/or every night.” He is currently working on creating Pintails, Widgeons, Spoonbills and Teal ducks.
Once the bird is sculpted, Kingsmill seals it with three coats of lacquer-sealer, then it is hand sanded and prepared with two coats of artist’s gesso. Next, he mixes his basecoat using Ronan Superfine Japan Colors, which have been in use since 1889—“it’s the same paint used on old Carousel horses,” Kingsmill says. At this point, years of training and practice in an old-time technique called scratch painting, which utilizes wet paint and the handle of a paintbrush, lets him create the lifelike feathers along the body of the decoy.
“I apply my scratches while the base coat is wet. I let the paint dry and I come back with the dark featherings,” Kingsmill explains. This can be a very difficult process—if the wet paint is too thick, it will crinkle, too thin and it won’t hold the scratch. Once the painting process is finished, the bird is hand rubbed with a beeswax protectant. Then comes the test.
Kingsmill places each decoy in a drum of water to see “where the balance weights need to be placed so that the bird floats properly.” Since these decoys are made to be used, they must ride lifelike upon the water and be able to right themselves if a strong wind blows them over. Once the balance is perfected, an anchor line and anchor are attached to the bird and it’s ready for service—or it’s placed on someone’s mantel. Some collectors even ask that Kingsmill hunt with their ducks once to “season” them before they place them in their homes.
This is Kingsmill’s favorite part, “Putting the decoys out in the water and seeing the live birds react to them. Just watching them float on the water and knowing the art form is still alive.” The perpetuation of this is very important to Kingsmill, “I am a member of and sit on the board of Louisiana Wildfowl Carvers and Collectors Guild … I want to keep this art form going and pass it on to anyone who is interested.”
So the next time you pass a body of water this duck season, take a second look at the ducks on the water—and another for Cal Kingsmill.
Cal Kingsmill’s decoys can be viewed and purchased at The Historic New Orleans Collection shop, 533 Royal St.