Photo report: a glimpse of the workshop of a decoy sculptor
JP Hand sits at his workbench and places a freshly painted rig of 10 brant lures in a slot bag as we prepare to hunt in the morning. He built each brant from three pieces of Atlantic white cedar with the kind of tools most people have in their woodsheds – a hatchet, knives and some sandpaper. But when you pick one up, it’s light, like a bird is light, and it looks so natural, it’s like it hatched from a wooden egg.
Everything in Hand’s shop feels like a thing of the past. The furniture appears to have been made over a century ago, and there is a noticeable lack of power tools except for a bandsaw, drill and table saw used only as a table. Yet the lures he makes and the techniques he uses to make them are as relevant as ever.
Store-bought plastic decoys with detailed wings and feathers may look like ducks, but Hand’s wooden decoys exude life and attitude. Each of them displays some kind of personality, a mixture of its own and that of the bird. Hand started carving at 17 when he couldn’t afford lures, and now, at 68, he earns a living carving and guiding at his home and small farm near Cape May Court House, New Jersey.
He’s also a historian, tracing his family’s history to 325 years ago, when his first ancestor settled on the south coast of Jersey and eventually started carving lures himself. Today he sells his decoys to hunters and collectors around the world and has taken on several apprentices.
Like any good artist, Hand knows how to look at things. He constantly observes wild birds on his farm and in the salt marshes near his home, and he is always looking for ways to use the natural materials he finds nearby to represent them. Above all, he can see the character of a bird and freeze it into a wooden decoy that somehow seems to have all the movement of the real thing.
Read next: Q&A: Jerry Talton on decoy carving and keeping the tradition alive
The result of his work is best described by Hand’s friend and fellow sculptor, Pete Peterson, who left me this note before I returned home from our hunt: “A hand-carved decoy is poetry in the making and magic on the water – the autograph of a wooden man.”
(This photo story appears in the Home Issue, the latest digital edition of Field and flow.)