For more than 40 years, the Ward Museum in Salisbury has been a monument to the majesty of nature and its waterfowl — and the best is yet to come
In a room filled with a century of decoys under glass, one in particular stands out: a family of ducks, including a drake, a hen with her wings extended and their six adorable ducklings.
What makes these decoys special is that they were never meant for the water but were crafted as a Christmas gift in 1920 from father to daughter. It’s a remarkable step in the evolution of duck decoys, from practical tools to today’s modern interpretations wildfowl carvings.
“The people making these tools were regular people, living their lives,” said Lora Bottinelli, executive director of the Ward Museum of Waterfowl Art, Salisbury University. “He used his skills as a decoy maker and made a sculpture — a decorative work of art. They help show, as we move through the museum, what happens next.”
You can see this mallard family by famed carver Ira Hudson on display at the Ward Museum. It’s just one of thousands of decoys among their permanent collection, as well as many more pieces on loan from collectors.
The Ward Museum offers a storyline to the visitor, telling them how the working decoy of the 19th century proved a crucial tool for early relationships between the land and the water. Over time, however, these simple wood decoys became increasingly elaborate. The collection follows those storylines to today’s modernist interpretations of duck carvings, thanks in part to robust international carving competitions sponsored by the Ward Foundation, itself an Eastern Shore institution that’s helped keep the craft alive for generations of carving families.
Founded in 1968, the foundation would hold carving contests to see who could create the best tool. Over time, it evolved from a simple contest to judge working decoys to adding new competitions for the best artistic interpretation of wildfowl.
“The tool starts getting fancier because it’s trying to impress people rather than do the job the tool was meant to do,” Bottinelli said. “In our competition format, there started to be a break between people who were still making the traditional tool and the people making it fancier.”
Held annually on the last weekend in April, the World Wildfowl Carving competition today brings hundreds of artists and photographers from around the world to Ocean City’s convention center.
The Brothers Ward
Born at the turn of the 20th century, Stephen and Lemuel Ward were, like their father, barbers by trade who took a keen interest in carving. Neither was formally trained in art. Yet, their innate skills, aptitude and execution for carving and painting decoys earned them a reputation for creating what came to be known as “counterfeit nature.”
Lem and Steve spent their lives in Crisfield and produced an estimated 25,000 pieces in their five-decade career, from working decoys in the 1920s and ’30s, to highly decorative life-size pieces into the 1960s. Lem had a hand deformity on his left side, and it was one of the reasons his family pushed him toward the arts instead of working on the water, Bottinelli said. Working through this handicap, Lem often would have difficulty painting the underside of a decoy because he wasn’t able to hold it cleanly.
As a result, many of Lem’s birds were unfinished on the undersides of their bills. For historians and collectors, this has become Lem Ward’s “tell,” or his giveaway for authentication purposes, according to Bottinelli.
The Eskimo Curlew
One of the oldest pieces in the museum’s collection arrived this summer, when a major collection was gifted to the museum by former Maryland legislator C.A. “Porter” Hopkins and his wife, Patricia. The Porter Hopkins collection, as it’s known, contains more than 900 pieces. While only a few were accepted into the museum’s permanent collection, the remainder will be sold off to benefit the museum’s acquisitions fund. The decoy of an Eskimo curlew dates to the 1830s. Constructed from canvas, it’s a crude, rough-hewn design with little detail, one that by comparison stands in stark contrast to future generations of intricately detailed and lifelike decoys. As a shorebird decoy, it was stuck in the sand on wooden legs, instead of floated like a duck.
Another museum piece harks back to ancient times. It’s a reed-and-feather replica of a canvasback decoy (the original is in the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington) that was believed to be a ceremonial object. Bottinelli says it shows that civilized tribes at that point in history were able to create decoys for more than practical uses.
The Show Goose
Another of the museum’s signature pieces is a Canada goose carved by Lem and Steve Ward. The life-size goose is positioned like it would be on the water, its head slightly tilted, its detailed wings pushed back against its body. Because an image of this bird’s graceful head for years had been used as the museum's logo, Bottinelli said they call it their “show goose.”
The Wards carved it in 1965 for Charlie Bounds, one of the founders of the Ward Foundation. Bounds later gifted this bird to the museum’s permanent collection, and eventually it took on iconic status as the symbol for the foundation and the museum.
Decoys For Dollars
The concept of the decoy as a collector’s item isn’t new. In fact, there’s one decoy in the collection that “kind of gives you a sense of who they are and why they’re important,” Bottinelli said.
In 1952, Lem Ward carved a Mallard drake decoy for his family physician, Dr. Amarosa, as payment for wife Thelma’s gall bladder surgery. Over the years, the Wards would create many decoys and carvings and then use them as barter payment for Dr. Amarosa’s medical services. The good doctor eventually amassed quite a collection and ultimately made a gift of it to the museum.
A World of Realism
The museum’s showcase gallery is anchored by several pieces created by the Pennsylvania carver Larry Barth. “His work is just exemplary,” Bottinelli said. “It’s realism, but there’s a way he’s able to construct his pieces that is extremely artful, but true to nature.”
One such masterwork is a snowy owl, peering back while perched on a log, a culled seagull in its clutch. It was the 1985 winner for Best In World among Decorative Life-Size Wildfowl. “You can see some of these lines he’s able to carry, how the snowy owl is true to its species but also a perfectly artful rendition of this scene,” Bottinelli said.
A New Sensation
More breaks were to come in the carving community, as the artistic branch once again split into an interpretive division of explorative carvings, ones not based in realism but better-suited for a sculpture gallery. The latest push into the interpretive division is a duck carving worthy of Picasso. Starting from the head and traditional sky-blue beak of a ruddy duck, the body explodes into blocks, patterns, and crystalline design elements. The cubist carving by Daniel Montano was the 2016 winner for Best In World Interpretive Wood Sculpture.
“I didn’t think the World Championship was ready for this,” Bottinelli said. “This guy completely went out of the box, but there’s no boundary in the interpretive division.”
The future of the carving community will come from today’s young carvers and artists, and that’s why the museum will soon open a gallery exclusively for emerging artists. The anchor of the youth gallery will be a 2014 carving of a Marvellous Spatuletail hummingbird, perched on an orchid, by Louisiana carver Matthew Birdsall. The 17-year-old won best in show for the youth category, and as a result, the museum would display his carving for a year, then return it. But rather than give it back, the museum instead decided to raise funds and acquire the piece for the permanent collection.
“It was so impressive,” Bottinelli said. “There's nothing in the museum’s collection that shows the highest level of achievement for young working artists, so we can always have something to exhibit that's a signature piece by a young artist.”
The Director Extraordinaire
Lora Bottinelli is entering her 15th year with the Ward Museum, the last decade as executive director. She came aboard in 2002 as curator.
“I was their first paid curator, so that was substantial,” she said. “We had just affiliated with Salisbury University in 2000. We were still working out how that relationship would work. When I came onboard, the real integration was starting to happen, coordinating with all the
Bottinelli was hired to launch the museum’s folklife program, called Lower Shore Traditions, which does all the research and documentation on the history and customs of the Eastern Shore. Her ethnographic research took her to all corners of the Peninsula.
Bottinelli’s educational background is in American studies with a focus on folk arts. Her experience there set her on a path that led to Ward. She guided the museum in her first two years to several national initiatives, including bringing a maritime exhibit on Crisfield to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2004.
That exposure earned the museum national visibility and opportunities.
A Center of Wonder
The Ward Foundation established its brick-and-mortar museum in 1976 and in 1991 moved into its current facility off Beaglin Park Drive in Salisbury. Today, they’re growing into the future with a 2,200 sq. ft., $1.6 million expansion of the facility, including increased classroom space for school field trips. Construction is more than 90 percent complete. A grand opening will be scheduled for sometime in early 2017.
Formally it will be known as the John A. Luetkemeyer Sr. and Thomas F. Mullan Jr. Legacy Center. Two chief donors, who gave a combined gift of $400,000, asked that the new facility be named for each of their late fathers. The museum also was the recipient of a $300,000 state grant for the project, as well as generous funding from the Richard A. Henson Foundation.
In addition to needing the new facility, the museum had been in need of major renovations for years. With a $2.2 million goal, its most recent capital campaign includes not only the Legacy Center but renovations to two other classrooms and gallery renovations, as well as upgrades to the lobby, gift shop and grounds.
Salisbury University President Janet Dudley-Eshbach said the Ward Museum has much to offer the community.
“The Legacy Center and other improvements will position the museum to support and serve our area with a new level of excellence for years to come,” she said. “It is an exciting time for the museum and the university. We look forward to the…incredible positive impact it will have on our community.”
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