Inspired Impressions: Adele Earnest’s Perception

By Gene Kangas, Art Professor Emeritus

Fog was heavy on the water at Black Bayou Lake; yet, birds could be faintly heard feeding somewhere in the distance. On that cool November morning, first light was slowly revealing the Louisiana refuge. Nearby a fisherman was preparing to launch his boat. Once his noisy motor fired up, everything would change. Mack set his digital Nikon on burst mode. As feared, the loud motor shattered the tranquil morning, frightening a flock of Great Egrets to escape flight. Mack was prepared. He was in the right place at the perfect time. Click, click, click, click, click, click. The egrets were gone. 

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Mack Barham returned home excited to review his photographs on his computer. One stood out separating itself from the rest. He called it Egrets in Fog, and it miraculously recorded that fleeting magical moment. A year later, Mack’s impressive photograph was awarded first place in the 2008 National Wildlife Refuge Association contest. Worldwide, digital technology allows millions of pictures to be inexpensively taken each day. 99%+ are ordinary snap shots; from time to time, a few capture something extraordinary, something memorable, something inspired.

Similarly, Ansel Adams (1902 –1984) was known for trudging up majestic mountains to patiently wait hours for the perfect alignment of clouds, light, and shadows. His admired  black-and-white photographs echo his first impressions of Yosemite in 1916. He commented, "The splendor of Yosemite burst upon us and it was glorious...One wonder after another descended upon us...There was light everywhere...A new era began for me."  We should realize that devices like cameras and wood chisels are merely tools. The intellect that controls them dictates common results or outstanding ones.

Last October six American mergansers landed in the stream behind our house to feast on thousands of minnows congregating in a shallow pool. It was the first visit in 25 years. Needless to say, I watched intently. Suddenly a drake thrust his green head under water, humped his back, and propelled himself across the water leaving a sizable wake behind him. Ahh, what a privilege to observe such antics! That momentary pleasure became a lingering memory. Most decoy makers witnessed similar stirring behaviors. Maybe you have as well? 

On fruitful occasions, vivid recollections of such events were translated into sculptural spirit effigies. The merging of individual carving skills, available materials, and personal feelings was and is the basis for unique expressions. The hunt for those exceptions has been a pursuit for generations of discerning collectors.

Adele Earnest (1901-1993) is the visionary matriarch of today’s decoy collectors. She and five others founded the Museum of American Folk Art in New York. Her books, The Art of the Decoy and Folk Art in America discussed the aesthetics of folk art and decoys. She offered readers guidance to help them better understand and appreciate creativity; and she coined the phrase “floating sculpture” as part of the conversation. But, on page 42 of The Art of the Decoy she cautioned, “Not all the carvings are good, worth saving, or deserving of the name of ‘art.’ Thousands are not – they are simply blocks, awkward and expressionless.” Not everything is wonderful.

Adele then recalled [pages 17 & 18]: “It was in Woodstock, New York – far from shore, lake, or estuary – that I found as fine a pair of heron decoys as I have ever seen…In later years, Stuart Preston, art critic of The New York Times [former curator at the National Gallery of Art], saw them and reported they were ‘worthy of Brancusi.’”

Who was the Brancusi that Preston referred to? Constantin Brâncuși (1876–1957) was an internationally esteemed modernist sculptor whose art career flourished in France. Young Constantin shepherded family animals in meadows and hills surrounding their Romanian home. Those formative years afforded him ample freedom to ponder the spirit of nature, which later became a primary focus of his life’s work. He sought to portray the fundamental embodiment of life forms rather than its specific details by using a personalized code.

That is why Preston mentioned Brancusi in relation to the Rochester herons. Concerning them and other decoys, Adele reminded us [page 63]: “… the collector must not demand exact ornithological detail. The decoyist took many liberties. Simplicity and effectiveness were more important to him than scientific rendering. It was the impression that counted.”

Brancusi faithfully pursued that ideal as he created a sophisticated series of sixteen elegant streamlined sculptures, nine in bronze and seven in marble. Variations on the theme were titled Bird in Space. The first, created in 1923, later realized eight figures, making Brancusi’s entire bird rig worth as much as half a billion. Brancusi also applied his imagination to transcendent visualizations of people, fish, and other creatures. Because of natural world familiarity, we can decipher a myriad of diverse symbolic transformations. 

A curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art once wrote, “From the 1920s to the 1940s Brancusi was preoccupied by the theme of a bird in flight. He concentrated not on the physical attributes of the bird but on its movement. In Bird in Space wings and feathers are eliminated, the swell of the body is elongated, and the head and beak are reduced to a slanted oval plane. Balanced on a slender conical footing, the figure's upward thrust is unfettered. Brancusi's inspired abstraction realizes his stated intent to capture ‘the essence of flight.’” He distilled reality.

Adele Earnest had seen the Brancusi sculpture at the Metropolitan. Her aesthetic appetite included museum visits as well as interactions with museum personnel, art galleries, and antique pickers. Her discriminating aesthetic radar went on high alert in 1958 when a picker brought her six 19th century swimming red-throated loons. As a decoy species, red-throats are extremely rare. Seeing a half dozen must have been exciting. Adele recognized their importance as folk art expressions curiously related to Brancusi’s birds and traditional Native American iconography.

Earnest promptly directed two loons to the Shelburne Museum via her affluent friend Elecktra Havemeyer Webb (1888-1960), founder of the Shelburne. Three more went into private hands. The sixth disappeared. The decoys have gestural root heads with pointed bills that gracefully flow uninterrupted downwards to unique rawhide neck/body transitions terminating with broad wide flattened tails. Their distinctively stylized paint and dynamic fluid forms suggest Native American origins, probably eastern Long Island.

Adele frequently observed similarities between decoys and world art. For example, she suggested [page 116], “The painting on the bird [eider] is a black and white wave, as bold and simple as a wave in a Japanese print.” She was referring to another artist. The Wave is a woodblock print by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). Published about 1832, it gained global fame in the last half of the 19th century after thousands were distributed. The Wave became a popular image representing the sea’s might. 

Visual comparisons of the rhythmic form and abstract polychroming of a serpentine necked 19th century Maine eider with Hokusai’s magnificent wave illustrate Adele’s incisive perception. There are aesthetic parallels. During that era, especially along the New England coast, America was receptive to the importation of the exotic. It was a period of assimilation and response. Humans in general possess an inherent curiosity for things new.

Adele was well aware of that. She theorized [page 150], “The most sophisticated carver of the 19th century was undoubtedly Lothrop T. Holmes (1824 - 1899) of Kingston [Massachusetts]. The sensitive modeling and brushwork of the mergansers resemble the exquisite rendering of waterfowl on Chinese scrolls and china. But there is no record that Holmes journeyed to the Orient or to Hong Kong on a Yankee clipper.” However, she saw a connection in the decoys; but, she likely did not realize that one of the largest private commercial sailing fleets in the United States was owned and originated in Kingston. Significantly, Holmes was related to that family.

Global commerce on vessels voyaging to ports from London to the Mediterranean to Hong Kong to Japan to Australia and South America regularly returned with such prized possessions as Liverpool Pitchers featuring hand-painted ships, lacquer decorated furniture, jewelry, ornamented silverware, oriental carpets, embroidered fabrics, and oil portraits of ships and family members. Adele’s astute logic sensed foreign design exposure. Her conjecture is supported by evidence of a pervasive worldwide trade associated with New England’s seafaring communities. They were undeniably connected with the world. Holmes did not need to travel. Influences came to him and many others.

Winslow Homer (1836–1910) moved to Prouts Neck, Maine, south of Portland in 1883. Homer’s last great painting, Right and Left, portrays a pair of goldeneyes at the moment of impact from an unseen hunter's gun. Right and Left’s depiction of near death forces viewers to face issues of mortality. Homer enjoyed isolation, which allowed time for ideas to evolve; and, that is when he began composing several celebrated career themes.

Homer is regarded as one of America’s important artists, with paintings often attaining eight figures. For example, Microsoft’s William Gates invested many millions in 1998 for Lost on the Grand Banks, a major seascape by Homer. Painted over a century earlier in 1885, it pits two vulnerable fishermen in a small dory against a dark and foreboding turbulent sea.

Augustus “Gus” Aaron Wilson (1864-1950) was born on Mount Desert Island. He grew up along the ocean and later entered the lighthouse service. He lived in South Portland, a little north of Winslow Homer’s Maine home. Wilson began making decoys and folk art about the same time Homer moved to the Portland area. Like Homer, Gus worked in relative isolation. Employed as a lighthouse keeper, he expanded the common vocabulary of decoys. One unique pair of Wilson goldeneye decoys was fashioned in approximately the same first 20th century quarter as Homer’s painting Right and Left. Wilson’s perfectly matched rig mates look sharply Left and Right, gazing at each other, perhaps acknowledging their intended lethal purpose – hunter’s silent accomplices.

Besides notations of Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuși and an unnamed reference to Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, Adele Earnest also introduced other cultural artworks to broaden readers’ perspectives. To do that, she illustrated ancient Egyptian wall murals, prehistoric Native American decoys, a 4,000 year old Sumerian sleeping stone duck weight, and Audubon prints.

Her comment [page 133]: “Joseph W. Lincoln’s (1859 - 1938) wood duck shows a stylization worthy of a primitive dance mask,” encourages collectors to look beyond the obvious, beyond the decoy. Adele basically asked, “Why…why does it look like that? What else looks like that?” “What was going on at the time?” One source might be in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography’s collection of Northwest Coast artifacts (masks, totems, rattles, etc.) that were brought back to New England during the Golden Age of Sail (1850-1900).

Many decoy makers and folk artists were often unconsciously influenced by both North American and world history. Although decoys were invented here, their evolution was greatly affected by cross-cultural exchanges. For instance, foreign imports surely affected Lothrop Holmes’ ideas. He lived in a specific time and place where the impact of a thriving community business is an important factor to consider. Comparisons with other art movements, forms, and artists from all time periods might increase our general level of understanding of a particular decoy. Does it qualitatively hold up to a Brancusi, Homer, Hokusai, or others? Would the art world agree? Is there an illuminating provenance?

Are there decoy comparable to other art periods? Of course there are. The French/American artist Marcel Duchamp (1881-1968) is famous for the 1912 Cubist/Futurist painting Nude Descending a Staircase.  He further enhanced a maverick reputation when he dared to break with centuries of traditional carving and modeling by transforming common objects or “ready-mades” into sculpture, starting in 1917. It was an ingenious re-purposing of a stool and wheel into a singular thought provoking radical object, which he proclaimed was ART. At the time, it was considered heresy.

While it’s enlightening to juxtapose the creativity of Fine Artists and Folk Artists, comparison of a decoy and an oil painting by the same individual might be additionally revealing.  Ferdinand Bach (1888-1967) was born in Switzerland just as Impressionism was becoming increasingly popular throughout Europe.  From the 1870s into the early 20th century, Impressionism exerted widespread aesthetic influence. Frenchman Claude Monet (1840-1926) remains one of its most famous artists.  Impressionists, like Monet, often painted on-site-out-of-doors.  They excelled at rapidly and freely brushed colors that attempted to capture shifting atmospheric conditions.

Ferdinand Bach was a mature twenty-eight year old adult when he arrived in America in 1916. He subsequently became a designer/draftsman for several Detroit automotive manufacturers. His earliest decoys were produced there beginning in the 1920s.  One exemplary group of early magnum wide-bodied black ducks (four are known) was made for Gerald John “Buck” Bockhausen, Sr. (1902-1983), a local police lieutenant.  The two likely met on the waterfront where the officer was assigned.

Those black ducks feature bold sculptural forms accented by loosely flourished feather suggestions.  A similar artistic approach characterizes Bach’s Impressionistic marsh scene.  The surfaces of ensuing rigs of Bach decoys were painted in a less casual style.

During the Great Depression (1930s), Walter Evans (1872–1948) of Ladysmith, Wisconsin considered various strategies to supplement his company’s struggling income. He “re-purposed” existing stock decoy blanks, added wheels, and created novelties. As he did, once conservative hunting tools were transformed into whimsical children’s entertainment. Their unexpected color palette was intentionally gaudy and unnaturally electric.

Avant-garde artists like Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) were excited by the figural abstraction of African tribal sculptures. They were energized by fresh visual solutions. Duchamp’s challenging impertinence and Picasso’s innovations were gradually accepted. Today, their artworks are appreciated by museums and private collectors for their once audacious creativity.

Conceptual links exist between ancient tule decoys discovered in Nevada’s Lovelock Cave and contemporary sculpture. Old is new again. Over two thousand years before Big Sky country’s Deborah Kay Butterfield began assembling magnificent horses from found bits and pieces of weathered Montana wood in the early 1980s, Archaic Natives selectively gathered bulrushes, skins, and feathers and assembled them into believable forms.  Butterfield and those original decoy makers are kindred spirits who created life portraits with an enduring western character. 

Similarly, selective branches and roots have been utilized over the centuries by fine artists, craftsmen, decoy makers, and folk artists across the globe. They all observed adaptable free-formed imagery. Decoy makers capitalized on natural twists and turns to fashion sturdy ready-made gestural heads and necks. Serpentine necks on Nathan Cobb, Jr.’s geese and brant are one example; and, he was a favorite of Adele’s.

Art connoisseurs have not consistently demonstrated strong preferences for a material or technical hierarchy. Wood is not considered better than bronze. Marble doesn’t always supersede fabric. Instead, concepts dictate appropriate choices. Decoy collectors, on the other hand, regularly self-impose questionable criteria. To most, hollow is better than solid. Cedar is better than cork or balsa. Why?

Intellectual and emotional emphasis might be better served focusing on content and achievement rather than surface condition and trends. What inspiration was expressed? Were innovations introduced? Were physical attributes magnified? Are the cheeks extra fat? Does it have a longer stretched neck? Is there a distinctive profile? What separates it from the flock? Is it a unique singular impression? Is it truly rare? Does it transcend the norm? Does it have a presence? Does it command lasting attention?

Adele Earnest understood those questions. She was aware that art is a fusion of many factors, whether homegrown or imported. Adele also realized that good art often challenges the status quo with innovative alternatives. Creative thinkers that dared dance on the edge of failure sometimes achieved grand successes. Adele proposed re-examining old collecting attitudes with new perspectives.

Four pages in The Art of the Decoy were reserved for a photo essay illustrating subtleties of an Albert Laing “repainted” canvasback. The camera lens of Robert Eichler isolated the bird against a plain non-obtrusive background. On page 159 Adele added, “The eleven close-ups of this fine decoy clearly reveal the characteristics of Laing, as well as his feeling for sculptural form.” 

She advised Eichler that one photo would not communicate its sophistication. More were needed. A majority of views focused on the decoy’s asymmetry to describe the sculptural nuances conceived by Laing. Adele didn’t hesitate to dedicate precious print space, regardless of the repainting. She believed that inspired decoy interpretations can be appreciated as world art. Will collectors help make that connection? 

Finally, the mergansers that visited us last fall were real. My memory of them is vividly real, but different. Inspired decoys recalling such events would also be real, but different again. Somewhere during the magical transformation from first- hand experience to memory to wood is where art begins.

Published in Decoy Magazine,
March / April 2014