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March 31, 1998

The Model and the Decoy

by Fred Marchman

Wildlife carving opened new worlds to me in terms of the nature of the decoy. The old gentlemen who inspired me in this all-American art and craft, the famous Ward Brothers of Crisfield, MD, modestly called themselves "counterfeiters of wildfowl." They aspired to capture the characteristic look and feeling of the particular species of ducks carved and painted for use as "shooting stools." In their art and craft, it was their task to convince the living ducks, not human collectors, as to their interpretation of the waterfowl reality. Later after they had achieved widespread notoriety and the art and craft of decoy grew into a new American art form, the function of their decoys shifted to pleasing collectors and to serve as mentors for a new generation of wildlife artists.

Oddly, by carving decoys myself I lived for some time under the illusion that decoy carvings were the only way that I could find to do art that the world would appreciate. I eventually realized that I had effectively decoyed myself with a false belief, namely, that by this rather limited notion of how I thought I should be expressing myself, I was diverting my attention from doing more of what I really wanted to do as an artist. This is not to say that I don't value this skill I have developed, for indeed there are many collectors who are only interested in my duck carvings. But it was that urge to follow the deeper prompting of my inspirations that allowed me to expand into expression of what I felt my heart and mind really wanted. This took courage, for I was not certain I could sell artwork that wasn't decorative decoys. (I don't carve decoys for the purpose of hunting.)

A "benefit" of my involvement in decoys was to increase my interest and knowledge of the bird kingdom. Another benefit was to realize every metaphor of the decoy concept. The decoy is not the reality. It is an imitation of reality. So, this idea that we can have our attention divided from that which appears to be reality yet is a diverting of our attention from the real thing is what I call the function of the decoy.

There are many examples of these decoy functions as a method of entrapment. Police use what they call decoys in human forms to capture criminals by using clever disguises and poseurs. The art of camouflage is similar to the decoy and has a like function, i.e., to fool the enemy.

Using more subtle and insidious examples, we note the great power of advertising and hypnotism like the parlor tricks of a stage magician who diverts our attention from the real event to what appears to be the real event. By playing on our fears and insecurities, or wishes, wants, desires, status seeking, the genies of Madison Avenue manipulate us by their artful decoy methods into buying things we may not really need but only think we need. They convince us through their clever deceptions that we are somehow incomplete unless we obtain what they have to offer. Sometimes such things are worth having but often they are merely playing with mass mind psychology and with the individual's conscious (and especially their subconscious minds). Thus, the art of hypnotism may be viewed as a function of the decoy.

Note that the focus of attention is a key to understanding the decoy or reality concept. I recall an incident at a wildlife show where a wildlife sculptor's highly realistic and complex group of birds crashed to the floor and broke it all to smithereens. This was a huge work of art the man had worked on for a year or more. He was of course devastated. People wept at the sight which was caused by one of his ponderous paintings ill-hung on his own inadequate rig. He was in effect hoisted by his own petard. (This phrase refers to a sort of boomerang decoy. French cavalry solders carried small grenades on their saddles which occasionally exploded by accident, thus, the phrase "hoisted by his own petard" which means to e made a victim of one's own set-up.) The decoy-deception in the case of the artist's crashed display may be considered in this light: What about the endangered species the sculpture represented? The people weren't weeping about the death of an endangered species but by a mere man-made work of art which was essentially a decoy to convince people, to suspend their belief as they say in the field of drama. Theater is a good example of such decoy activity that we very much take for granted. The actor or actress is playing a role other than their true self. In effect, they are projecting their identity onto a decoy (role) which they expect to convince their audience is real. Although we are to understand that the actor is not the same person as the role they are playing, in effect many actors become so identified with their roles, either by themselves or by the public that they become unreal -- they become their own decoys. It's like the Elvis impersonators. Now some of those guys may have a real singing talent buried in there which they are sublimating, because they are so identified with their ideal or model personality that effectively they don't exist as their own personalities -- they have become decoys.

Now a model is not necessarily a decoy, but an example. In sculpture we call this the maquette.

Carving decoys, I became aware of some deeper implications of this concept. Examples such as policy decoys, fake prostitutes, camouflage, the Trojan Horse, and there are many other such examples of the deception of our five senses used in human strategies.

No matter how "realistic" a painting or carving may appear, it is not the real thing, only an imitation. The real duck species is the real thing and the original inspiration. The first duck decoy made by American Indians were simply made of mud and sticks with perhaps the actual feather pelt of a duck to cover a bundle of reeds which was all that was needed to fool the flying ducks and decoy them down for the hunters to snare. When white men started carving wooden decoys they began, often, with a flat cardboard pattern that sought to imitate the characteristics gesture of the duck, goose or swan. Then a top view was made as a pattern and the two patterns thus served to aid in creating a 3- dimensional carving. This was the method I learned.

So now we have the real duck, the pattern for the decoy, and the decoy. This triune scheme is all about different levels of "duckness" if you will. It dawned on me lately that this triune scheme may be applied to many conditions and situations in life and can be used as a sort of analytical tool. The chart below further shows the functions of these three different areas.

Exampleduck decoyprofile silhouette sketchmallard species
crash test dummyadvertising designhuman being
in theaterrolescripttheme/moral
typing/casting of characteractortrue identify
into a believable roleassumed characterreal life

"The Painting as a Decoy"

Illusion is the story of painting. The mutability of the painting medium is such that it can convey to us imaginary places beyond the physicality of the canvas surface -- beyond the layers of paint film.

Paintings are "decoys" in the sense that they lead us into another world -- into alternate realities if you will. We are led into the realms of the emotions, of the mental planes and even propelled toward spiritual vision -- away from this illusion of the material world which is the handle on reality for the masses of our fellow incarnate beings.

It is this material world which is the illusion with its comic and tragic conditions ever changing.

The abstract expressionists sought to unmask both worlds -- the illusionistic and the material. Our initial repulsion from abstract painting which was of paint, about paint -- the effect emotionally of particular combinations of colors and textures, qualities -- served to lead us to a view of the material world as an illusion of raw beauty as the unbridled imaginations of both artist and viewer saw it.

The viewer must allow for the suspension of disbelief just as when attending a play or movie. All the arts deal with reality and illusion -- it goes with the territory as the actor said in "Death of a Salesman." Theater in general provides plenty of material for complex decoy and nail situations.

The Triadic Shell Game

Whether the condition or situation expresses as a decoy, a pattern for the decoy or the real thing, we may see it all as a mystical paradox -- a kind of cosmic shell game.

(True Motive)
academiacollege degreejob certificationgetting education
Christianitysin/evil/devilChrist consciousnessGod: Holy Trinity
philosophyillusion, physicalethic bodyspiritual being
sculpturefinal castingmold, designtheme/inspiration
metaphysicserror thought
(false belief)
belief systemharmony of man &
subconscious mindtruth/God
Father-Mother God
psychologyschool of movement
Jungian, Freudian,
T.A. gestalt
applied to personal
problem, methods,
medicine procedure
functional, mental &
emotional health of
persons, groups
desireenlightenment or
socially redeeming
chosen forms within
poetry, prose, essay
inspirational source
moral, theme, etc.
visual artsartifact: painting
sculpture, or print
landscape, still life
subject, mater,
abstract, figurative,
idea, ideal, theme

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