Carving Out Their Niche In a Male-Dominated Field

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The awards ceremony at the end of the 34th annual Ocean County Decoy and Gunning Show in Tuckerton last month honored the talents and skills of those who carry on the traditions of the Barnegat Bay way of life – most of them rugged outdoorsmen. But two honorees were girls, ages 12 and almost-17, each the winner in her youth category. They represent a small minority of female artisans drawn into the male-dominated art forms that define the heritage.

Allison Hillman, a student at Kingsway Middle School, competed in the 14-and-under group and won with her green-wing teal. Last year she won with a black duck.

“My dad has always had me into different outdoors-y things,” she explained. Her dad, Jode Hillman, is a carving instructor at the Tuckerton Seaport. At home in Mullica Hill, the carving workshop is a barn-type building where she has loved to create since the age of 3 or 4, according to Jode. With a natural inclination toward fine art and the expertise of her father to teach her carving technique, Allison is equipped with the tools of the trade.

“I find it particularly satisfying to pass along a tradition I have worked hard to perfect to my daughter,” Jode said.

Allison translates the hobby into practical application when using her decoys to hunt wood ducks and geese with her father on the Maurice River.

Along with the reward of an artful job well done, Allison likes that carving gets her out of the house – “just the experience of it all,” she said.

According to her father, “Her earliest works were just scraps of decoys pasted together and colored with crayons, but she would arrange them into new forms: dogs, cats and moose – all were made from castoff pieces of duck decoys.

“Since then,” he continued, “she has grown as an artist and now has gotten several commissions of her own. The fact that she and I hunt over our decoys makes it all the more special to me. I am sure one proud dad.”

Throughout the carving process, Allison takes photos of different stages of completion, and at the end she likes to see the evolution.

“I think it’s definitely something I want to do for a long period of time,” she said.

So far she has carved five ducks: two black ducks (one she kept and one was a commission), a mallard, a canvasback and the award-winning teal. “When I get bored, sometimes I’ll look online for different birds I might want to do,” she said.

As much as carving is an important part of her life, not many kids at her school know about her woodworking skills.

“It really just never comes up in conversation,” she said.

Sarah Myers, whose widgeon won her the award in this year’s decoy show, has always been a bird lover, birds of prey in particular. She was inspired to try carving after attending a special event at the Seaport and being impressed and inspired by the work of master carver Nancee Jo Luciani, who instructs the Seaport’s carving club along with Malcolm Robinson. The club has about 10 kids.

Luciani was the first female recipient of the Folk Arts Apprenticeship grant from the New Jersey Council on the Arts, receiving it two years in a row. “Part of what they want us to do is pass on the tradition. And I took that to heart. I have always loved the traditional arts.”

That was six years ago, when Myers discovered her passion for carving. The more she did it, the better she got at it; the better she got at it, the more she liked it. She’s carved a total of 10 ducks, about half of them shorebirds. “We carve them traditionally as working decoys, but mine are definitely more decorative.”

She took third place in the Ward World Wildfowl Carving Competition’s Danner Frazer Youth Division for a black-bellied plover and third in the marsh ducks category for a widgeon. She also won an award for a ruddy turnstone at a Two Rivers Exhibition of Collectible Sporting Art in Rumson.

Her favorite decoy? Usually the last one she’s completed and can’t stop looking at.

Myers’ family lives in Hamilton, a 60- to 90-minute drive each way, a trip her parents make with her twice a month. There’s nowhere else near her home to carve, she said.

“I haven’t been hunting yet, but I really want to go,” she said. She often goes to Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge to observe nature; her artwork is an extension of her love of the natural world.

“I’m one of the few girls that do it, so it definitely empowers me,” she said.

Robinson, a great-great-grandson of decoy carving icon Harry V. Shourds, will jokingly tell her a finished piece is “not bad, for a girl” – and she’ll tell him it’s not half bad for a boy’s work, either.

“Being a female role model is such an honor for me because I get to work with kids like Sarah,” Luciani said. She’s been teaching for 10 years and carving for about 15. When her interest in carving began, it was Robinson who inspired her. He encouraged her to try a carving class, “and I chopped the nose off of my Santa Claus,” she said. But she didn’t quit. Next she carved a miniature duck, and she was hooked.

Luciani was a featured artist in the Jersey Shore Folklife Center’s 2010 exhibit on women carvers, “Tradition from a Woman’s Hand: Female Carvers, Historic and Contemporary.” Also in that exhibit was the work of Emily Disbrow of Tuckerton, who is now 19, another standout in the next generation of women carvers.

“There are not many of us,” Luciani said, “but there are many more than people think there are. But we’re not in the public eye. We’re not the baymen.”

Historically, women painted their husbands’ decoys, she said; nowadays, women are taking up hunting in record numbers, so the two art forms combine. But it’s tough to break into the boys’ club, especially in competition, she said.

Luciani described Myers as a talented young woman with a keen eye for painting detail. As a teenager, Myers is exploring her world and she is lucky to have her family’s support, in addition to the support of the decoy community, a.k.a. her “carving family.” The experience adds to her whole self, her personality and her knowledge of history, Luciani said.

“Any hobby can become a profession,” she noted. “As women, we’ve proven we can get into any field we want to, but this is one a lot of women don’t give any thought to.”

Luciani encourages women who enjoy working with their hands to sign up for the Seaport’s Santa Claus carving class, coming up in November, with instructor Mark Bair.

“It’s important that we don’t lose this piece” of history, she said.

— Victoria Ford

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