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  • Brian Nguyen / Sacramento Bee

    Chet Wilcox works on one of his creations in his home studio on July 9, 2013 in Citrus Heights, Calif. Wilcox runs a duck decoy tool and supply business out of his home.

  • Brian Nguyen /

    Chet Wilcox adds texture to a wildfowl carving. He also sells carving supplies and teaches classes.

Carved decoys star at Sacramento's Wildlife Art Festival

Published: Saturday, Jul. 13, 2013 - 12:00 am

It's said to be one of America's oldest art forms. Year-round, local carvers put delicate detail into creating duck decoys.

Hunters have been making decoys since the nation's beginning as an artful technique to lure their prey.

Centuries later it is being kept alive by artists who love to replicate the majestic wildfowl that migrate through the region along the Pacific Flyway.

This weekend, the Pacific Flyway Decoy Association will hold its annual art festival and competition. Hundreds of artisans will come to Sacramento to compete for titles, including "best doubtful antique" - ones that look the most like an authentic antique decoy - and to learn about wildfowl migration.

"It originally began as a swap meet," said Brad Snodgrass, a longtime carver and the owner of Dutch Creek Decoys. "I think they just started in a parking lot."

After two years, the swap meet transformed into a competition for artists to create realistic, handcrafted wildfowl. Soon after, the craft became more about creating pieces of fine art for display than creating functional decoys for hunters.

Snodgrass said the art form elevated in the 1960s and 1970s. "That's when the leap to realism occurred," he said.

Artists used power tools and airbrushing to create even more similarity between the decoys and the wildfowl they resemble.

"Now, if you sat them next to a real bird, the real bird would probably be embarrassed," Snodgrass said.

The original decoys, however, did not include as much detail as many of today's decoys.

"I think the original market hunters didn't consider that they were participating in an art form," Snodgrass said. He said that now many antique decoys are worth a large amount of money, some even selling for more than $1 million.

Decoys won't be the only pieces on display this weekend. Artists will also showcase prints and paintings of wildfowl, plus fish carvings. There will be workshops on topics such as how to develop a pattern and how to make a habitat for the decoy.

The feature event is the International Wildfowl Carvers Association style competition. Carvers will submit their most intricate and lifelike decoys from all over the country, and even a few from Canada and Japan, to win this international title.

However, even with its appeal, longtime decoy-makers fear that decoy carving is a dying art form.

Snodgrass said when he first started attending art festivals in the early 1990s, there were probably 2,000 to 3,000 people in attendance. He said he expects only 500 to 600 spectators this weekend.

However, even with decreased attendance, entries may increase, Snodgrass said. He expects up to 500 decorated decoys of various sizes, fish, and flatworks for entry into the festival's competitions.

About five of those entries will come from Sacramentan Don Hovie, an award-winning wildlife artist. His home studio holds a couple of hundred decoys in progress. He said he's made about 3,000 decoys over the years.

"Sometimes it will take me a week to draw a pattern," Hovie said.

When he started, there were no instructional books or power tools to aid in the artistic process. Hovie said he continues to craft everything by hand.

Citrus Heights resident Chet Wilcox has participated competitively in the festival since 1982. He and his wife, Dorothy, sell tools and supplies year-round.

"It's very relaxing," Wilcox said. He has taught his craft to a variety of people, including lawyers and legislators. "They'll come to class, just really uptight, and in about 20 minutes it all goes away."

"It's a really healthy art form that enhances people's appreciation of nature," Snodgrass said. "To me, some of the happiest moments of my life have been spent out on the marsh."


What: The Pacific Flyway Decoy Association's art show and competition

When: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday; 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday

Where: DoubleTree Hotel, 2001 Point West Way, Sacramento

Tickets: $5; free for children under 12

For more information:

Call The Bee's Brittany Torrez, (916) 321-1103.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Brittany Torrez

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