Thursday, May 26, 2011

Dividing Creek

Last Autumn, I traveled to Dividing Creek at the invitation of two decoy carvers I'd met while doing fieldwork in Paulsboro and beyond.  It was an opportunity to see more of their decoys, in the living context of the duck hunt.  That day, I'd also be able see their hunting cabin, and learn more about their work. 
I stowed my camera in the car and headed southeast from Philadelphia, really excited about the trip.  I love going out to the meadows.  There are moments when, as you look out across a sea of meadow grass, and take in the sweeping channels and the ponds, you can imagine you’re in a timeless place.     
When I arrived at the hunting shack that morning, I had time to take some photos before the others arrived.  Here’s my first shot of the creek:

Dividing Creek Looking East from Rt. 553

I continued taking photos all around the site until Sean Sutton and Jode Hillman arrived.  We talked about decoys and duck hunting as they tended to their gear.  After a while, some other hunters arrived.  They unlocked the hunting shack door, to get some food and drink, and show me around.  Here's a photo of a portion of the shack's interior.  It's a cultural artifact in its own right!

Hunting Shack Kitchen

Someone got a fire going in the charcoal grill along one side of the shack, and after a while there were a dozen hamburgers cooking and rolls toasting.  Somebody else cracked open a beer.  But we all stayed on the subject of decoys.   
Discussing Decoy Provenance. Hillman (left), Sutton (right)

There’s a classic text called Wildfowl Decoys, and it's kind of the  bible of duck decoys.  It was written by Joel Barber, an early collector, whose extraordinary collection is now on view at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont.  You can access the museum's decoy page here.  Anyway, the guys got to talking about a certain decoy, someone produced a hardcover copy of Barber, and everyone gathered around to look and discuss.  These photos capture something of the flavor of that discussion:

Consulting the Source
Decoys are a highly significant artifact, from a social, cultural, economic, and historical perspective.  When I first got interested in them, I quickly learned that not all decoys are alike.  Which is to say, the decoys from one part of the country -- say from New Jersey – are different, stylistically, from decoys carved in Maryland, or Virginia, or Massachusetts.  These differences are clear, especially to experts, but the casual observer might find it hard to distinguish the decoys of one region from those of another.  But there’s more.  Even within a given region, there are sub-regional styles, and within the various regions and sub-regions, there are the individual styles of the different carvers. 
There are two major decoy carving regions in New Jersey, each with their own sub-regions and individual styles.  These New Jersey regions are the coastal region, stretching, roughly, from the Atlantic Highlands to Cape May; and the Delaware River carving region, stretching, roughly, from the mouth of the Delaware River at Delaware Bay, northward to Trenton.  At Perkins, our interest lies squarely with the Delaware River decoys -- for the most part.

Green-Winged Teal by Jode Hillman
I was happy to learn that there is a decoy carving tradition ongoing in the Delaware River region today.  This isn’t surprising in itself.  But I was really interested to discover that wooden decoys are still being carved and used for duck hunting, just as they had been in the 19th and early 20th centuries, before they became "collectible.”  And as I've discovered, there are some notable contemporary carvers in our region -- George Strunk, Sean Sutton, Jode Hillman, and Ray Miller, among others.  The first three carvers are operating, stylistically speaking, within the Delaware River carving tradition.  (I’ll discuss Ray Miller’s work in greater detail in a separate post.)  Meanwhile, here are some photos of Sutton's and Hillman's work. You can visit Jode Hillman's website by clicking here; you can visit Sean Sutton's website by clicking here.

Black Duck and Pintail
(rear) by Jode Hillman
You can see from these photos of Delaware River-style decoys that they are finely detailed, with carved wing or tail feathers, while other feathers are indicated only with paint, and the use of color. 

Teal Rig by Sean Sutton

Time passed quickly that afternoon.  The two carvers had come there with another purpose in mind, and before long it was time to go.  After hanging out and talking at the gunning shack for a while, Sean and Jode loaded gear and decoys onto their boat, got the dog safely aboard, and put into the creek to do some hunting.  Here's a photo of them on the creek.  Heading out to the ducking grounds, as it’s been done across the generations.  

Heading for the Ducking Grounds

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Perkins Fieldwork

Yard Tableau by Calvin Fisler

This is the first post for this blog, so I'll take a minute to update readers about the Folklife Project at Perkins Center for the Arts, of which this blog is a part.  The Folklife Project at Perkins aims to establish a smaller center within Perkins Center that will be devoted to identification and support of traditional or community-based arts and cultural activity.  The project covers a three-county region, including Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester, which compose the home" region of the project.  We won't, however, limit ourselves to the home region if important connections arise that lead into nearby counties.  In fact, I've already pursued leads into parts of Salem and Cumberland Counties, which I'll find time to report on in a future blog.
We've been developing our Folklife Project since the Fall of 2009, with generous support from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts (NJSCA).  During the 2009-2010 fiscal year, we completed a cultural survey of the three-county region, and made plans to develop a web page for the project in the next fiscal year.  We anticipate that the cultural survey will be an ongoing feature of the project, and that our "inventory" of community based arts and artists will continue to develop.  Our plan is to make the inventory accessible to our readers and to the general public, in support of folk or traditional arts and community artists and artisans throughout the region.  We expect that the inventory will become an important resource to the arts, education, and general communities.
Meanwhile, we've launched the Gloucester County portion of the Folklife Project web page, and anticipate that the Burlington County web page will be available by the end of the current fiscal year (30 June 2011).  The Camden County page will follow soon after that.  During the current fiscal year, I've followed up on last year's results by doing more intensive fieldwork in Gloucester County, and increasingly, in Burlington County.  As I say, we'll pay increased attention to both Burlington and Camden Counties in coming months.  In the short term, we'll launch all three county web pages, and then feed and update them as fieldwork progresses throughout the region. A word on our method.  The fundamental, grounding activity of the Perkins Folklife Project is: fieldwork.  I hesitate to get into a longish discussion of what that means just now.  I'll make a point of commenting on the fieldwork process here and there, and of course, some of what fieldwork "means" and how it is conducted will be self-evident as these blog entries unfold.  For the moment, however, I'll note that we use the term "fieldwork" to mean direct engagement of an individual fieldworker with people, place, and community throughout the project region.  This activity takes shape as observation, informal interactions, interviews, and later, "documentation," using photography, audio recording, and good, old-fashioned note-taking.  Fieldwork is an exploration and discovery tool, undertaken by an individual fieldworker working in a consistent, systematic, and methodical fashion.  But enough said about that for now.  More to come in the next post.