Put Wade Johnson next to Clarence “Juice” McKenney—a natural state for the longtime friends—and you’ve got nearly 90 years of exquisite duck decoy carving experience.
The two men own the lion’s share of blue ribbons from the past few decades of duck decoy carving shows and competitions from the Northern Neck to the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
“If we didn’t win them, we know the carvers who did,” said McKenney, who hails from Mount Holly in Westmoreland County. “In this hobby we’ve stuck with all these years, we can look at a decoy and from its style know exactly who carved it. It’s a fairly small group of folks.”
McKenney and Warsaw resident Johnson will join two other carvers—Willard Bowen and Brandon Sanders of Richmond County—in demonstrations of their carving skills at an event Sunday from 12:30–4 p.m. at Grove Mount Farm in Richmond County.
It’s the annual “Boots and Barbecue” event put on each year by the Northern Neck Land Conservancy. The group strives to preserve working farms, managed forests, wild marshlands and river shore in the Northern Neck and Essex County that form one of the Atlantic Flyways’ most important wintering grounds for waterfowl. (See sidebar.)
In recognition of that fact and in celebration of the landowners who maintain the region’s rural character, the NNLC is showcasing the sporting tradition for this year’s “Boots” event, making this year’s theme “Dogs, Decoys and Doubles.” (For details, see attached box.)
Nationally known carvers who will both turn 73 this year, Johnson and McKenney are great ambassadors for the tradition and artistic expression at the heart of carving duck decoys.
“I’ve tried to help students and others who’ve expressed an interest in carving,” said Johnson, who taught leisure sports at Rappahannock Community College for years and took up carving as a less physical hobby. “The commitment of time and effort means many of them don’t stick with it.”
McKenney, known by all as Juice, said his motivation for picking up decoy carving was born of necessity.
“I had to kill ducks to eat,” he said with a smile. “The better the decoys I carved, the more ducks I would kill to feed my family. And after a while, I came to understand that blue ribbons meant bigger dollars for the decoys when they sold.”
The two carvers were gracious enough to welcome me to Johnson’s home and workshop last week, offering me a primer on the way the duck decoy world has evolved through the years.
“I got in decoys painting a white spot on a goose in an assembly line for decoys for my father,” said Johnson, noting that dozens of those goose decoys were made in the space of a morning.
McKenney said he and most decoy carvers spent less time and effort in the ’70s and ’80s, when the decoys carved looked more like general representations of different kinds of ducks.
As the tools, paints and even the wood used by carvers got more sophisticated—these two use the soft and easily sculpted wood of the Tupelo tree—many of the decoys began to exhibit increased detail and an amazingly natural look.
“Juice really has a talent for catching a particular pose, a real-life activity of a duck in his carving,” said Johnson, “throwing a wing out in a certain way or turning a head in. My carvings tend to have a more serviceable look.”
McKenney, who spent much of his life as a commercial fisherman, said he puts a lot of time into coming up with those poses and real-life duck stances, to the point of having a permitted aviary at his home.
“I’ll sit for hours on a bench near it, watching the ducks in it to find a moment that says something about them,” he said. “I’ll also take photos and use them to help get the details right in the sketches I do ahead of the carving.”
Johnson said modern rotary blade carving tools help to etch in all the pinfeathers and other details in a duck decoy, as do specially designed Tupelo knives that he buys from a certain supplier in Louisiana.
“We don’t carve as many as we used to,” said McKenney, noting that there were times when he and Johnson could knock out a decoy in 10 hours or so.
With the level of detail and painting that goes into each one, it takes 30 to 40 hours or more per decoy, and the cost of wood and supplies can run over $70 per decoy.
Each of the carvers can get from $300 to $500 per decoy, with collectors waiting on lists to get an original work of American folk art.
“We look to put a bit of the personality of each duck into the carvings we do,” said McKenney. “From the little ruddy duck who’s a clown to the canvasback that’s more stately, it’s all about capturing that essence in what we carve.”
They both agree on one other thing: they will keep carving decoys for as long as they can, even if it takes longer to carve each one.
Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415