Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the album Soul Sand. Used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.
Rich Smoker: It’s what I’ve done now for over 50 years, carved birds, and to me it’s what I’m meant to do; it defines me and it does because there’s so many factors that goes into this-- into the carving, the research, the background, seeing it in life and everything involved, and it all comes to a head when you’re working in the wood and after doing it so long I really can’t imagine doing anything else but.
Jo Reed: That’s decoy carver and 2019 National Heritage Fellow Rich Smoker and This is Art Works the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.
Carving decoys is increasingly recognized as an important North American art form—this is due in no small part to master carvers who elevated the craft to a complex and intricate art, people like National Heritage Fellows Lem Ward and Harry Shourds and 2019 National Heritage fellow Rich Smoker. Rich Smoker has been carving and painting decoys for over half a century—he brings a keen sense of observation to the art—spending hours watching birds in their natural habitat and pouring over wildlife books and images and then applying those observations and research to his work. He’s been named a Living Legend by the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art, where he’s since been named the museum’s chairman of the board and he was presented with an Achievement in Living Traditions and Arts or ALTA Award by Maryland Traditional Arts. But Rich Smoker doesn’t just make brilliant decoys, he is also dedicated to making great decoy-carvers. In his commitment to grow this art form, he’s had well over 2,000 students as well as taking on apprentices. Decoy carving is a central art in the Chesapeake, which is one of the reasons why Rich moved to lower eastern shore almost 40 years ago from the Pennsylvania countryside.
Rich Smoker: Originally from central Pennsylvania. I was born and raised in a small town called Selinsgrove on the banks of the Susquehanna River so I grew up on the Susquehanna River, a river rat, and yeah, I still love it without a doubt. I have coal dirt under my toenails yet from Susquehanna whereas now that I live on the Big Annemessex River I have marsh mud so it’s a mess trying to clean your fingers and your toes. Well, what are you going to do?
Jo Reed: Now how did you get hooked on decoys?
Rich Smoker: Ooh, that’s a good question. I’ve always been a water person absolutely fascinated by running water -- I liked hunting too because my family that’s what we did. We hunted; we fished. I would fish, and sudden my dad had a couple of decoys and he wasn’t using them so what the heck; I’ll try it. So, I grabbed the decoys and went down along the river-- actually the creek because it was real shoal and it was beautiful and floated them. I was hooked; that was it. Floating sculpture is when I look back across it, it defined my life; let’s put it that way, floating sculpture. When I could see that surrounded by fall colors, running water that was crystal clear where I could see every rock underneath the water it was just-- why would you want to do anything else but this, and at that time I had no money. Of course, I was in school and my dad was the industrial arts teacher at the time and back then industrial arts meant wood shop so I take wood shop; I got A’s because I like working with my hands. So, I said to Dad about making decoys or where do we get decoys he said, “We’ll make them” so we started making decoys when I was in high school and that was great because I would steal away from classes. I flunked French three years in a row <laughs> so I could go and make decoys in the wood shop.
Jo Reed: Tell me about the first decoy that you made.
Rich Smoker: Oh, boy. As a matter of fact, I even have them here in my shop. I have the first ones that my father and I made together and I also have the first one that I made by myself so I kept those. My God. We thought we had done something. My dad and I made six mallards, four black ducks and ten canvasbacks.
Jo Reed: Wow. That’s a lot, isn’t it?
Rich Smoker: It’s 20 you know - and it’s really not that many.
Jo Reed: I know nothing so--
Rich Smoker: That’s fine and well, that’s the beautiful thing about this art form; not many people know a lot about it and that’s one reason why I’m tickled to death to get this NEA Award to get this thing out to the public. It’s not about me, it’s about the art form, but we made these decoys and we thought that we had done something; we had made stuff that nobody’s ever made anything like this before, boy, were we surprised to see what other people were doing. We actually went to a show; that was in the late ‘60s that we made those and I think ’70, ’71 or something like that we went to our first show -- it was an exhibition in Salisbury, Maryland. We drove from central PA to Salisbury, Maryland, for the Ward Museum so Wildlife Art Expo.
Jo Reed: When you say “we” that’s you and your dad.
Rich Smoker: My dad and I and my mom; three of us went. You can’t get out of the house without Mom. Mom was an artist too so I mean she loved to paint and do a lot of that stuff so there wasn’t any way around it, which was great. We went there and I walked into the old convention center and looked there and all I could see was carvings, paintings and stuff to make them with, and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven, and to be honest with you right then and there I knew what I was going to do the rest of my life and that was carve birds. Then I worked towards that goal without a doubt. And I’m still working towards that goal because if you ever get complacent you’re just wasting your time.
Jo Reed: Now the Ward Museum, it was named for the Ward Brothers. Tell me who they were.
Rich Smoker: Geez, I never heard the name before. <laughs> They without a doubt -- icons. In this area, when you say “the Ward brothers” there’s a number of different carvers that come to mind that really have set the bar really high, these people have gone beyond just making decoys; they have made birds and they’ve made bird art. When I first went to shows I met the Ward brothers and talked with them and it was still one of the high points of my life meeting them and talking with them and getting their guidance a little bit.
Jo Reed: I love the fact that they had a barbershop.
Rich Smoker: Oh, they were both barbers and his father was a barber—
Jo Reed: All props to Lem who is a National Heritage Fellow as well.
Rich Smoker: Exactly, without a doubt. That what makes this whole thing so just surreal for me to know that Lem Ward was a National Heritage Fellow, Harry Shourds was a Heritage Fellow, and now I’m one and there’s only been three carvers and-- I’m in really good company, it’s phenomenal, but I know it’s not exactly for just my work; it’s for my work that I’m trying to teach people, to show people that what we do is not a bunch of guys sitting around a wood stove chewing tobacco and making ducks. It’s more of an art form than what people realize and it really is without a doubt.
Jo Reed: That’s the thing about folk and traditional arts, how that sense of passing down, of being handed something and then doing work with it and then passing it along for somebody else to continue is so crucial.
Rich Smoker: It was described to me at one time too: It’s not what we do in our lifetime, it’s what we inspire other people to do in theirs, and I think truer words could never be spoken.
Jo Reed: I think that’s right. Who’s Mr. Diddy?
Rich Smoker: Mr. Diddy <laughs> Wilson E. Diddy Tech, Wilson Elwood Diddy. He hired me as an apprentice for taxidermy; I went and apprenticed with him. How did you ever find that? That’s cool. I learned more about life. He was a curmudgeon. He would never call you a dumb SOB unless he thought you were one. <laughs> I worked with him for nine years and it was a love-hate relationship, some days I love the guy and some days I’d like to strangle him, but he taught me more about life and about anatomy, about birds, about animals than anything that I could have ever done. It was a college course condensed into nine years. For a man who never went to school, who never finished high school he had a book collection that was just unbelievable; he had a book collection that was-- oh, I know it was valued over a million dollars when he passed. He had John ________________ books and there’s one of nine copies in the world, he had one of them and just absolutely loved every book that he owned and luckily for me I had interest so I got to play with his books and he got me hooked on books and as-- books as knowledge, not to read them all but it was explained to me that knowledge is not knowing something off the top of your head; it’s knowing where to find it, find the information. And that’s one thing he showed me, I could do that with a book collection, now the Internet and if you can find the information you want I mean that’s paramount.
Jo Reed: What was it about taxidermy that drew you? Did you see a connection to carving?
Rich Smoker: Not really at the time. What drew me was the fact that I could work in this stuff and what really iced the cake was I could go hunting in the morning and I could come in to work at ten o’clock and I could work a full shift but I didn’t have to be there at eight o’clock; I could go out and sit on the river and see what’s going on. To me that meant everything in the world. It was about visualizing what’s there, seeing things coming through and the moving water kicking over rocks and looking at things and seeing decoys float.
Jo Reed: And that smell.
Rich Smoker: Oh, yeah, you just can’t-- once it’s in your nostrils you can’t get rid of it; you just can’t.
Jo Reed: I agree. How long did you do taxidermy?
Rich Smoker: I apprenticed with him for nine years and in the meantime, I was carving too and as it worked out he was a carver-- Mr. Diddy was a carver and my dad and him got to be good buddies so they would carve together. I would leave at four thirty, five o’clock, six o’clock, whatever and my dad would come in the second shift and they would carve all evening. As a matter of fact, when I would come in in the morning their stuff would be out on the table and I would look at what they were carving and it’s like “Well, these guys don’t know anything. These guys don’t have a clue” so I would pick up their stuff and start working on it and boy, I got in so much trouble with that. “Don’t touch our stuff. Carve your own stuff” so I was carving my own stuff but I was trying to help them. Taxidermy what it taught me was the anatomy, taught me how to take notes, how-- it taught-- and it taught me everything that I need to write down about what’s important, what’s this color, what was the color of the bill, what was the color of the feet. The beautiful thing about taxidermy was you have to have the inside right to make the outside look right. From taxidermy you work from the inside out; with wood carving you work from the outside in but you still have to know what’s on the inside.
Jo Reed: What led you back to carving and carving full time?
Rich Smoker: I apprenticed with Mr. Diddy for nine years and I got married and decided to open up my own shop – I went out on my own as a taxidermist - so in the meantime I was carving and I wanted to do nothing but with birds, all the avian forms, so I opened up my own studio and in the meantime I would start carving when I was slack or anything like that and it would give me more time to carve. That meant everything and I realized that when we went to that show that’s what I wanted to do so this was a self-help course to get to that goal and that’s exactly what I did; I treated it as such so I could achieve my goals.
Jo Reed: I want to talk about different types of decoys for people who know nothing about them and I will go into that camp. There are working decoys and then there are decorative decoys. Can you explain the difference in the work that goes into--?
Rich Smoker: Sure. Working decoys-- it’s a decoy that is made to be utilitarian. It can be hollow, it can be solid; it can be painted with water-based paints; it can be painted with oil-based paints. That all depends on the artist. It can be painted simple; it can be painted real fancy. It can be a block of wood with just a cut-out head on it; it can be a marsh stump turned up with a shovel with a stick on it for a head. It can be just about anything. It can be a Clorox bottle. Those can all be working decoys. Then you have decorative decoys; now that fits into a number of different things. You can do it like a smooth bird like what I-- no real feather carving and no real feather detail, all the-- everything is painted on it or you can get into the real decorative birds where each feather is individually carved, textured and painted that way so those are really fine detail and everything is made, all the habitat that the bird sits on, rocks, trees. Anything involved is handmade and that’s the most fun is trying to put it all together.
Jo Reed: Are their materials other than wood that you use for structure or for strength?
Rich Smoker: Sure. I use a lot of different woods. If I’m making a decoy I want to try to use nothing but wood if I can. To fortify some areas, I’ll use brass rod and make feet out of copper; I use brass also for that. So, I mean there’s a lot of different things. You’re only bounded by your imagination really.
Jo Reed: We talked about what a smoothie is, what about a shootin’ rig?
Rich Smoker: Oh, a shootin’ rig, okay. That is what we define it at the Ward Museum; we have a category called SR which is shootin’ rig and the qualifications for that is you have to have three birds and they can be-- they’re supposed to be a drake and a hen and the third bird can be any bird that you want it to be. When I won that world championship it was a pair of red-breasted mergansers and a red-throated loon is what I won with.
Jo Reed: A world championship--
Rich Smoker: Yeah, uh huh.
Jo Reed: --which is huge I would imagine.
Rich Smoker: Oh, yeah, it’s a big thing and I also had won a third best in world in miniature-- decorative miniature and that was with a long-eared owl and it was-- that was fun. I really love doing that stuff. I have backed off competition of late because I pick a lot of the judges for the world championships now and I don’t want that idea of collusion involved with anything with the Ward so it just seems easy to say, “Well, I just won’t compete.”
Jo Reed: I’m curious. There are so many skill sets involved in this and I have a sense of how the carving skill set came to be but what about the painting? Was that trial and error?
Rich Smoker: Well—
Jo Reed: How did you figure out what paints to use and how to mix them and seal them? Painting is so complex.
Rich Smoker: Oh, it is without a doubt and you have so many different mediums. That’s a good question. When I first started Dad and I made the rig of decoys, we used oil paint and you could buy the kit. You got a pint of decoy white, you got a pint of decoy black and you got the mallard gray, and you would put them on accordingly to what their directions would be so you realized after a while that life ain’t all about that so you have to do your own. So, I started out with oil-- oil paints because they’re so easily to blend; I loved it but I hated the open time. I hated it take a couple of weeks to set up and dry and geez, I’m-- here I am, 16, 17 years old; let’s move on. So, I switched over to acrylic and started learning how to do that and I came with an oil painter’s mind-set-- learning how to blend color and to this day I use a lot of gouache, opaque watercolor, and acrylic and I blend them just like I do oil and I do a lot of oil painting too. Just absolutely love all those mediums and each one has its pluses and has its minuses, but frankly I’m able to work at both of them the same way. The whole thing of painting is, don’t be intimidated; just get in there and have fun with it. I never went to painting classes per se, everything was trial and error. I mean I had art in high school and that was a blast.
Jo Reed: And thinking about the Ward brothers and how important carving is to the Chesapeake and to the lower eastern shore, whether it changes stylistically from region to region are there some regional differences like in Maine or the Mississippi Delta for example?
Rich Smoker: Definitely. Every region has its own quirks, if you will. Just on the Chesapeake you go up to the top of the bay in the Havre de Grace area most all of those decoys are round-bottomed and solid to run the currents up there. Down here if we had solid, round-bottomed decoys all they’d do is roll because we have short, choppy waves down here constantly and most of those decoys with narrow chests and wide hips so you had a narrow chest but a real big rear end if you will, and they were flat bottomed. And what those did was they rode the waves so that they would act like a boat and they would handle the short, choppy waves that we have down here more so than something that was solid and round-bottomed. You go to Shenkitig and most of those decoys were roundish bottoms for the same thing, for the short, choppy waves that are over there. And quite frankly what I have done with my decoys here in this-- on the river is I’ve married Shenkitig with Somerset County. I go with a wide beam and a flat bottom and some of them are solid—so it all depends on what you’re trying to do but you have to know your water, what you’re trying to make them for. I take my decoys and go places. I put them in a bag. I’ll go up and hunt with my brother or I go to Shenkitig or various places and we’ll put our decoys out and I get to see if they work well on that type of water.
Jo Reed: What brought you to Somerset County?
Rich Smoker: I got lost; I couldn’t find my way out.
Jo Reed: And you’ve been here ever since.
Rich Smoker: Oh, yeah, 37 years. Actually, I went out on my own as a taxidermist in Pennsylvania and my wife was teaching school and we both realized that this isn’t what we want to do the rest of our lives. I didn’t want to do taxidermy the rest of my life and carving it-- in that area wasn’t going to work because people really didn’t equate “Oh, you make ducks; that’s nice. How much is that duck? Well, I’m not giving you $35.” So, I didn’t want to do that so I wanted to go someplace where I’d at least have a chance and my wife was teaching high-school math and realized that if she didn’t she didn’t do something she was going to teach high-school math the rest of her life so she applied for a job down here. I can do whatever I do anywhere and if it’s on the shore so much the better so she came down and the first place that she interviewed hired her and the rest is history so to speak. That was August that we moved-- she moved down in September, I came in October, and we’ve been here ever since.
Jo Reed: You’re in this beautiful house on the water and it’s just fabulous. Tell me--
Rich Smoker: Thank you.
Jo Reed: Tell me about your day; I want to hear about your work day, just walk me through your work day.
Rich Smoker: <laughs> I’m generally up before dawn, sometimes it’s four o’clock and sometimes it’s six, it depends, and in the summertime, I get to look at martin houses; we get to watch the birds so I’ll watch them and-- while the coffee’s being made. Oh, my God. I mean that’s phenomenal, watching the world wake up, I’ll go to work here in my shop and—
Jo Reed: Which is attached to the house.
Rich Smoker: Without a doubt. It’s a two-car garage that’s been converted into my studio-- I say “studio” because that’s a neat term, I like that a lot, but it houses everything that’s me, lots of wood, and all the tools of my trade. All my hand tools, all my power tools, all my brushes, everything. It’s me. This is it, my book collection, my antique decoy collection, some of it, my antique decoy books. It’s all me and it’s all here. It’s everything that I need to keep my mind from wandering.
Jo Reed: What about your tools. What tools do you use?
Rich Smoker: Oh, boy. It all depends. I think the first knife I ever bought was $3.95 and it was a German carving knife-- my dad didn’t even have one like that. I thought man, I am uptown. Probably have 80 knives in my collection now and what I have done is regrind a lot of them and made them suit me and consequently a company up in Salisbury, Maryland, Knotts Knives, have taken my patterns and now are marketing the Smoker series of knives so that’s kind of cool.
Jo Reed: That is very cool. Are you kidding?
Rich Smoker: I think that’s kind of cool, yeah, and I use my knives exclusively so that means a lot to me, but when I had carpal tunnel-- I had both hands redone-- during that time frame I couldn’t use my hand tools so much because my hands would lock up so I was using power tools and I got pretty efficient with power tools and I still use them quite a bit, but there’s something about working with wood and using a hand tool that you have to do; you have to feel the wood to understand how it’s working. I do a lot of rough-out with a hatchet or a draw knife and yeah, I just absolutely love to feel how the wood works underneath a hatchet blade. I have a number of hatchets that I use that-- modified for myself so that they work out really well and it just flips people out to see <laughs> you use a hatchet.
Jo Reed: That would be a lot of fun actually.
Rich Smoker: What really gets me is I get to go to the Library of Congress and they want me to chop a decoy while I’m there. Last time I was at the Library of Congress they threw me out because I had a pocketknife that my dad gave me that was an inch and a half long; they say, “You can’t come in with that. We’re going to confiscate it or you have to go outside and bury it.” I went outside and buried it. Now I’m going to walk in with a hatchet. Is it poetic justice?
Jo Reed: It is and remind them.
Rich Smoker: Oh, you can bet on that, yeah.
Jo Reed: You are also a great believer in giving back.
Rich Smoker: Oh, that’s all-- that’s what it is.
Jo Reed: I can intuit why that would be important but can you articulate why that’s so important to you?
Rich Smoker: Gee. Boy. I think this art form we’re all in it together. To me I decided that there’s no secrets. What I’m finding is there’s so many people out there that don’t have a clue; they don’t know where to start and they’re afraid to ask; they’re afraid to do anything. So, I’m more than happy to help people and that’s what teaching classes has done for me, taking on apprentices, people that call me and say, “How did you do that?” or “How would I blend this?” It’s no big secret; it just takes work plain and simple. So, you try to help everybody.
Jo Reed: You’ve had over 2,000 students.
Rich Smoker: Yeah. I think the last I counted there was over 2,600 and that’s been years ago, yeah, and I mean to be honest with you some of those have been counted more than once because they come back, I just counted numbers, but a lot of them have come and I think my biggest-- I guess you could say it would be the biggest congratulations you could possibly get is when people would come to a class, take the class and you wouldn’t see them again. They learned what they needed to know; you’ve helped them and you helped them over the hump and that’s great. They go on their way and they’re going to do it their way. They don’t need to stick around and do it my way; I’m here to help them to get their own ideas and so I think that’s all of it.
Jo Reed: And your granddaughter carves.
Rich Smoker: Yes, she does. The beautiful thing is my family. My dad and I started carving. Dad hated to paint so my mom would start painting some of his stuff. Consequently, with my mom painting things two of my sisters got involved. They carved, they painted a little bit, and they did enough to enjoy it but they kind of drifted on. I had a niece and a nephew that carved. My daughter carved and now my granddaughter’s doing it and she’s nine and she’s doing great other than she tells me-- she said, “You know, this is boring.” <laughs> My granddaughter seriously has a gift. She can realize form and she can also pick up a paintbrush and do a pretty good job-- it’s going to be tough but I’m going to try to keep her on the straight and narrow.
Jo Reed: You’re the chairman of the board?
Rich Smoker: At the Ward?
Jo Reed: At the Ward Museum.
Rich Smoker: I am chairman of the board of directors.
Jo Reed: And named a living legend by the Ward Museum.
Rich Smoker: <laughs> Oh, and my wife says I’m a legend in my own mind.
Jo Reed: For people who might not know what the Ward Museum is just--
Rich Smoker: It’s the world’s biggest collection of wildfowl art. It’s housed in Salisbury, Maryland. We have an executive director and I think we have pretty close to 20 people working there. It’s the biggest collection; we have well over $7 million worth of artifacts in our collection. We have ongoing exhibits constantly. We have a number of them coming up that’s just-- I’m on the-- I’m chairman of the curatorial committee also so I get to play with all the items that come in and oh, it’s terrible; it’s like the fox watching the henhouse.
Jo Reed: Yeah, I bet it is too.
Rich Smoker: It is but it’s something to see.
Jo Reed: When we talk about this as an international art, and I should have mentioned this earlier, how does carving change around the world? Where else are decoys coming from and how different are they? I’m just so curious about that.
Rich Smoker: Well, that’s a great question because we have competitors from all over the world. We have a regular contingence from Japan that comes and they bring mostly all decorative birds. We have a lot of people from Russia, Germany, France, England, Mexico, Canada, not that Canada’s a foreign country. We’ve had Australian. Unfortunately, a lot of times when people are coming from away-- are coming here to compete with decoys this is decoy king. There’s only two native art forms that I know of that were originated in the U.S., in North America, decoys and the banjo, and decoys have gone to-- its rocket scientists here. I mean these guys are just phenomenal when they’re making decoys. Most of the people from away have a tendency not to be able to compete against them because the bar is set so high. But decorative, the Japanese are phenomenal, I mean intricate, oh, my God, intricate, and it’s just beautiful to see. It’s poetry in motion watching them assemble their pieces at the world championships, just seeing these things, but it’s tough to compete against North because this is where it really originated and they have just kept going with the whole thing.
Jo Reed: We’ve talked a bit about you being named a 2019 National Heritage Fellow. What does receive this award mean to you?
Rich Smoker: Oh, boy. I’ll be honest with you. I was told that I was being nominated for it a year or a couple years ago and it was-- to me it was like well, if I never get it that’s fine because just being nominated-- how many people get nominated? Not all that many, that’s a whole country out there, but when I got a call from a congressman I finally asked him-- I said, “Yeah, okay. Who is this really? Come on. Well, you’re pulling my leg. Come on” and I said, “Oh, no, it’s the truth.” So, I’ll be honest with you. I don’t get misty often but that broke it out. I had tears coming down my cheek, I could feel it and was sitting there thinking that my God, this is the cherry on top of a whole career, the bad thing is one of my customers walked in while I was listening-- and he said, “What the hell’s wrong with you?” I said, “Oh, I smashed my hand with a mallet; yeah, that’s it, and now I’m going to hit my foot” so—
Jo Reed: Right, because you’re not supposed to tell anybody for a while.
Rich Smoker: Exactly.
Jo Reed: There’s the period of silence until it’s public.
Rich Smoker: Oh, yeah. Oh, that was tough. To be frank with you, it means more to me that the art form is going to get recognized again. I think this is more about the art form than it is about me; I’m just the banner. I want people to realize that this is not just some backwoods sort of thing; this is truly an art form and that’s really what it means to me.
Jo Reed: Congratulations. I consider that a really deep congratulations.
Rich Smoker: Well, I thank you but like I said I don’t take congratulations very well because I just shrug it and it’s-- like I said it’s not about me; it’s about the art form.
Jo Reed: I think it can be about both. Thank you, Rich.
Rich Smoker: Oh, it was a blast. Thank you.
Jo Reed: Good.
That’s decoy carver and 2019 National Heritage Fellow Rich Smoker. The National Heritage Award is our nation’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts. And if you’re in DC on Friday, September 20, come to a free concert that will feature performances, demonstrations, and stories from the 2019 National Heritage Fellows, including Rich Smoker. It’s at Shakespeare Company’s Sidney Harman Hall. Get more information at arts.gov. And if you can’t come to DC, don’t despair. You can watch a live webcast of the concert at arts.gov.
You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to Art Works wherever you get your podcasts, so please do. And leave us a rating on Apple because it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
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