For most people, duck decoys are tools for hunters or decorations for beach houses, not art worthy of competitions, exhibitions and big bucks. But there is a world out there where high-quality, hand-painted decoys can bring in thousands and where Christie’s once auctioned off an antique Red Breasted Merganser Hen decoy for $856,000.
John Lawrence is part of that world. He began making decoys in 1982 as a way to remain involved with the outdoor life during the hunting off season. He built on a few college art classes and a lifelong love of wildlife by taking workshops in bird anatomy and painting techniques with George Kruth, a Moon Township artist. By 1989, he was competing against upwards of 200 carvers at competitions around the country and quickly rose to world class level, winning several best in show titles. Earlier this year, he took third place in the Shootin’ Rig category at the Ward World Championships—the largest carved bird competition in the world—for a Labrador duck that has been extinct since the 1870s. Third place might not seem that exciting, but in the duck decoy circles it was huge news, as it was the first time a decoy of an extinct duck had been entered into the competition.
After that win, Lawrence decided to redirect his focus to waterfowl sculptures. The Mt. Lebanon High School class of 1977 grad says for the last few years he’s been leaning in this direction because he prefers the freedom of going bigger and bolder with the forms and deeper and richer with the colors. “It’s now about the art,” he says, “not who is winning.” Without having to worry about measurements and inflexible rules, he can play with shapes and colors to create sculpture like “Snow in the Evening,” a snowy egret whose breast is awash in grays, pinks and purples as if reflecting the water at night.
Lawrence draws his subject as many as 30 times before he begins the hand carving process. “I view everything [I carve] as a three dimensional picture,” he says. He prefers locally grown wood—he has a supplier in Forest County, but also has used black locust and red cedar from his neighborhood—and meticulously hand paints each bird using artist quality oil paints.
Lawrence’s intricate work has been featured in art shows and galleries around the country, including this summer’s “In the Air & On the Water: The Magic World of Bird & Waterfowl Art” at the Lake Placid Center of the Arts in New York.
If you are interested in seeing some of his completed and in-progress projects (or an instructional video), go to www.johnlawrencedecoys.com. Or try driving by his Parkside Avenue house. Lawrence says that as he works, he often takes his sculpture out to a tree stump in his yard to see it in different light. “I’ve been known to stop traffic,” he says with a chuckle.
Lawrence also offers private lessons and workshops. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.