By Charles Fergus
Elmer Crowell: Father of American Bird Carving, by Stephen B. O’Brien Jr. and Chelsie W. Olney, is a biography of a gifted man, a view into a bygone era of abundant waterfowl and rich sporting enthusiasts, and a gallery of exquisite photographs of beautifully carved and lovingly painted decoys. Elmer Crowell of East Harwich, Massachusetts, lived from 1862 to 1952. A market gunner and cranberry farmer, Crowell rose above the making of work-a-day decoys to become a true American folk artist whose carvings today command the highest prices for such objects.
The lavishly illustrated book weaves together prose, historic photos and sporting art by Frank Weston Benson, A.L. Ripley, Ogden Pleissner and others to create an evocative tapestry of Crowell’s world and his art. His best work came during a span of 15 years at the beginning of the 20th Century, when he produced “intricately carved birds that were subsequently exposed to the rigors of hunting.” Co-authors O’Brien (a sporting-art dealer and noted decoy specialist) and Olney judge Crowell to be “the most influential bird carver of all time.”
A preening pintail duck carved by Crowell has topped a million dollars at auction. Impressive enough, but what’s truly impressive are the decoys themselves: ducks, geese and shorebirds that don’t just look alive but also embody the passion that the keenly observant carver clearly felt for those birds. Gavin Ashworth contributes crisp, well-lighted photos of Crowell’s dekes. This is a coffee-table book to learn from, enjoy and browse through again and again.
Limited to 1,000 copies, the book is available for $100 from copleyart.com/sporting-art-auction-catalogs.php.