Idaho Arts Quarterly » Front & Center

Art of Deception

Decoy carving according to Frank Werner


For Frank Werner, duck hunting is like an opera. "Opening day is always a special occasion, a 12-gauge symphony of joyful noise," he says.

To Werner, hunting ducks is an "operation"—each act has its specific purpose and value, like an opera. Werner describes with careful detail how he prepares for a hunt, from loading his boat the night before to taking the first sip of coffee on his boat and waiting for the sun to rise. "That's always the best moment in the morning, when the first light gets out and you can see your rig out in the water in front of you," he says. "I could do without shooting a duck for a whole day, as long as I get that moment." It's a lovely and bucolic sentiment not often associated with hunting, but for Werner, the hunt is as much about aesthetics as it is about shooting a duck.

Born in New York City, Werner cut his hunter's teeth on BB guns and sewer rats, later refining his weaponry skills in the U.S. Marines, where he served for 20 years. He says it didn't take much to decide Idaho would be home after he retired from service. One cross-country family camping trip in a '64 Volkswagen Bus during the summer of 1974, and Werner's wife and three sons agreed that Idaho felt like home. That same year, Werner and his family moved to Moscow, where they lived for 27 years before he and his wife ventured farther north to the small mountain town of St. Maries. Werner began carving decoys in the fall of '74, not long after his first Idaho duck hunt.

On that trip, Werner used plastic decoys. He was completely disappointed by the lack of aesthetic appeal these mass-produced birds offered to what he thought of as a beautiful engagement with nature. "I felt that the whole world's turning to plastic, and that was the last straw," he says. So Werner, having been a pattern maker in high school, utilized his skill as a woodworker and made his first decoy—a mallard hen. Friends and family agreed that the bird looked "real enough to fly," and that was all the encouragement Werner needed in order to dedicate his time to the art of carving decoys.

Werner is now a remarkably accomplished decoy carver and widely recognized artist. He has won numerous awards and endowments, including a recent grant from the Idaho Commission on the Arts. He has shown his work in more than 50 exhibitions since 1984, 28 of which were solo showings, from Washington state to North Dakota and all they way to Guadalajara, Mexico.

Werner makes one thing very clear, however: He does not particpate in contests that pit one decoy against another. "Somehow, they think they can judge which decoy is better than the other, and I say you have to spend enough time dancing in the mud to tell me that before I'll believe it," he says. He believes the decoy contests are too subjective. "It's purely aesthetic. There's no way possible of telling which decoy works better," he says of the judging process. Werner has spent a great deal of time refining his craft and if someone is to judge his work, he prefers that it be through the eye of an art appreciator.

When Werner shows his work, his choice of display cases is very deliberate. He describes them as "strongly gridded, post-modern pieces," and to him, the contrast between the organic form of the decoys and the stark lines of the cases strikes a perfect visual balance. The rigid black lines of his cases separate each bird so that they float delicately against the pale background of their individual cells. The effect is beautifully somber and austere, almost like a mausoleum.

Werner's insistence that one decoy can work as well as another makes his personal love for the art of creating a bird that much more apparent. His decoys are striking. Each curve of the wood is perfectly sanded and elegantly sculpted, and the precision with which he paints the bodies is a stunning combination of realistic and stylized feathering, the slightly exaggerated features helping his birds stand out against the muted grays and greens of the marsh in order to attract migrating flocks. Once his rig of decoys is placed, it's astounding how realistic they look bobbing through the shallow water.

During the months of October, November and December, the marsh is Werner's gallery and his decoys are used for their intended purpose. For the remaining nine months out of the year, he carves diligently, but for Werner, those three months signify the true "authenticity of the art," which he calls the "art of deception." The very nature of a decoy is to deceive birds by luring them into a hunting area, and without first having been out on the water for at least two hunting seasons, Werner feels his carvings lack the "tension" they need in order to be considered fine art.

Although he admires the aesthetic nature of his display decoys, Werner feels his art belongs on the water. "After nine months, they come out of the cases and go back in the boat," he says. "The cases, to me, are just a temporary home."

No matter what the context—in a case or on the water, in nature or gallery—Werner's elegantly crafted birds are beautiful to behold.