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Artist carves out booming niche decoy business

Posted: January 23, 2014 - 4:18pm

WAHPETON, N.D. (AP) — A Lidgerwood man’s passion for woodworking has developed into a successful business. Whittier Spear Fishing Decoys, owned by Rick Whittier, sells beautifully painted, carved wood spear fishing decoys. When the Smithsonian declared spear fishing decoys were an early form of folk art, it started a revolution and launched the American Folk Art movement. They are now very sought after by collectors worldwide. In addition to their popularity in the United States, Whittier regularly ships his pieces to customers in Europe, South Africa and even China.

Whittier will be featured by TV host Bill Sherck on “Due North Outdoors.” He said he originally emailed an open invitation to Sherck last year, to come and visit his shop anytime. Four hours later, he was on the phone with Sherck. After several months of planning and scheduling, the production company set the dates for a visit.

One day will be spent filming in the shop, and another day spent spear fishing on the ice.

During his busy week, Whittier is also scheduled to speak to the Junior Wildlife Club and Red River Area Sportsman’s Club.

“We’ll bring a swim tank, 120 gallons, so the kids can play with the decoys,” he told the Daily News.

He uses a testing tank in his shop as well, so every decoy he makes can be tested. He creates a hollow space inside each that he fills with molten lead for added weight, so the decoy will sink and “swim” in circles as it’s lowered into the water.

Whittier is a master artist with decades of woodworking experience. He’s been hand-carving and painting fish decoys since 2004. His shop is in the basement of his home. He’s created 400 different species and sub-species of fish decoys the last decade. The realistic-looking decoys include game fish, trout and salmon, and rough and bait fish, ranging in size from 4.75-6.25 inches for small decoys, and 8.75-9.25 inches for large decoys.

Whittier has an unusual way of painting his carvings. Rather than using an airbrush, he uses Krylon spray paints. He blends the colors in midair and mists them to give a wet look. He works with a palette of about 50 colors, he said.

“Everything you see is off the shelf spray paint out of the can,” he said. “It dries really fast, and I like to mix the paints before they dry.”

He touches them up and adds details, such as spots or stripes, with a brush and paint from the spray cans. According to the North Dakota Council on the Arts, he’s the only one known to paint fish in this way throughout the decoy world for competitions.

After seeing his work, it’s surprising to hear he’s had no formal art training. Whittier is assisted by his wife, Connie, who sands the blanks and does the wood burning of scales. She also handles the office work. The couple sells about 1,500 decoys annually, and the business is growing, he said.

As part of the Art4Life program, through the North Dakota Council on the Arts, they travel to assisted living homes and teach the residents how to paint decoys. The couple brings along the swim tank, as well.

“They get to keep them, and we let them swim the decoys when they’re finished,” he said.

Whittier regularly enters the Minnesota Darkhouse and Angling Association competitions and the National Fish Decoy Association’s World Points Championship where he’s won close to 80 awards and ribbons, including Minnesota Carver of the Year.

Whittier’s impressive track record includes an exclusive exhibit at the North Dakota Governor’s office for three months in 2010. His work has also been on display at the Center for Art in Wood in Philadelphia. He’s used his talent and experience to teach three apprentices for the North Dakota Council on the Arts, as well.

Whittier said his intent with contacting Sherck’s TV program was to spotlight the art form of creating spear fishing decoys and its importance as American folk art.

“I want to show people how to make them,” he said. “All the old carvers are dying off. In order to keep this art alive we have to encourage others to do it.”

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