East Texas artist carves out his niche making wooden duck decoys

Posted Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Here in this small, artisan town situated between Canton and Tyler in the thick trees of East Texas, there is a small workshop at the end of a parking lot.

It is an inauspicious place; to call it a two-room building is a gracious description, but there is a partition that divides the building from something of a front showroom, and a rear workspace. A tall band saw is crowded outside on a tiny porch.

It called the Blue Moose, for some inexplicable reason. It is neither blue, nor does it have anything to do with a moose. But there is a wonderful assortment of wildlife inside this nearly hidden gem. It is where R.D. Wilson works his magic and as a modern-day Geppetto, transforms simple blocks of wood into intricately crafted duck decoys, shorebirds, songbirds, fish, and nearly any type of sportsman’s dream.

Wilson, a Dallas native, has always been an artist, but over the years he has carved out a personal profession that has brought him a degree of fame, a profitable living, but more importantly to him, a wealth of friends with which he can hunt, fish, travel, tell stories and laugh. And, of course, sell a few pieces of his art along the way.

“I work more hours a week now than I ever have,” he said. “But my work has allowed me to meet some of the neatest people all over the United States.”

Wilson’s success as a decoy maker has elevated him to the top of his craft. He travels to dozens of shows around the country each year, often with his expenses paid by the show itself. He sometimes serves as a judge; sometimes he is an auctioneer, many times he is simply there to meet and greet and help the shows raise funds for their respective charities.

Of course, he is also many times, an exhibitor.

As he sits at his disheveled workspace, wearing his dusty apron, Wilson explains that his life hasn’t always been this casual and artistic. In fact, his current lifestyle is a far cry from his suit-and-tie existence of the early 1980s when he moved to Arkansas and became a commercial artist for an advertising company. He didn’t enjoy the work, he confesses, but the salary was high.

His health, however, wasn’t profiting. After learning of a serious illness, Wilson decided to take stock of his life and in total, he wasn’t all that happy. Though the illness turned out not to be life threatening, it did give him pause, and he decided to move in a different direction.

“It was kind of one of those bucket-list things,” he said. “I was a duck hunter and I wanted to have the experience of hunting over my own decoys. It’s the same thing as a fisherman wanting to tie his own flies or make his own lures. It a special experience.”

Wilson took a few pictures, matched them with his artistic talents, and eventually came up with about a dozen decoys of his own making.

“The first thing I noticed was how well wood floated; better than plastic,” he said. “It turned out to be the best duck hunt of my life. The ducks wouldn’t stop coming in; they nearly landed in our blind.”

He laughs at the memory now, saying he was probably just situated on the right part of the water, but at that time there were two groups of hunters — one on either side — and they couldn’t beg a duck to come their way. Eventually, they moved closer to Wilson and his group and asked if they could take advantage of their good luck.”

“We already had our limit so we didn’t care,” he said. “The ducks just kept coming. It was like it was one of the God things. I had never had a feeling like that before.”

One by one, Wilson gave his decoys away as gifts that Christmas. Word got around and those who received the gifts soon wanted to add to their collection.

“I got well,” he said of his illness, “and decided I wanted to teach. It was something I had always wanted to do. But I began supplementing my income by making more and more decoys. Eventually, I began going to competitions.”

Wilson prefers the older style decoys, he said. They aren’t necessarily the most intricate, or the most lifelike, but they have a certain look and style that appeal to him. He entered an “antique” style national competition in Sacramento, Calif., and in the 10 years of the show, he won top honors in five of those years.

He gave up teaching.

Now, he does almost any style his customers want. He still favors the older styles, and he does a lot of restorations. His works can run from a couple hundred dollars to thousands, depending on variables like the wood, the condition, the intricacy and the size.

Mostly, the work is for collectors, he says. Hunting over decoys is not big in Texas, but there are still a few diehards who enjoy the history and art the hand-carved decoys represent.

“Believe it or not,” he said with another trademark laugh, “I’m doing a lot of urns.”

He did it for one human, he explained. The man offered to leave a sum of money to his hunt club if they would bring his ashes to a hunt each year. They asked Wilson if he could make a hollow decoy and he did. They put the man’s ashes inside and every year they float the decoy on the water for opening day.

“Now, I’m making them for favorite hunting dogs,” he said. “I just did one for a man who wanted a decoy where he could place the ashes of his faithful old dog. I hollowed one out and put a stopper in it and now the man can still hunt with “Old Duke.”

R.D. Wilson’s website is www.dentcart.com/unclerd/uncleRD/Home.html.

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