Birds of a Feather: Local Louisiana Folk Art

Brown Pelican, cypress root
Wood Duck Drake, cypress root, 1983
Canada Goose, tupelo gum 1994, Collection of Robert Reeves

Birds of a Feather Part 2
Historic New Orleans Collection
410 Chartres St. New Orleans, La
$6 Admission
$10 Admission + Booklet

I never thought wooden decoys would excite me, but after attending the “Birds of a Feather” exhibit at the Historic New Orleans Collection I was shown a new art form. The exhibit displays wildfowl wooden carvings from Southeast Louisiana. After seeing Part 2, which contains contemporary carvings, I wish I had caught the Part 1 on usable, older decoys. However, there is a great booklet available describing the history of decoys. The carvings I saw were not usable decoys, but they were created in the same tradition using cypress wood and wooden hand carving materials. A light and easily malleable wood, cypress was originally used to keep the decoys afloat. More than mere hobby, these woodcarvings are extremely lifelike, attesting to the talents of the artists as well as their knowledge of wildlife. One has to literally look twice to tell they are masterfully painted and shaped. In many cases each feather is carved out and individually painted. Many carvers try to capture the wildfowl in a natural stance, such as picking at feathers, cleaning themselves, nesting, sleeping or caring for their young.

Brought together from a variety of collections, the Birds of a Feather exhibit illustrates the talents of this local folk art form. Though some are educated, most carvers grow up learning to make their own fishing tools. Naturally a folk art would grow out of such craftsmanship; from the need to work with one’s hands arises the creativity of man. Perhaps the most striking piece was of an owl clenching a quail. Sitting upon a log with its claws clinging onto a lifeless quail, the owl looks truly magnificent. Wisps of feathers graze the quail’s head, but are really tiny flakes of cypress wood. When one looks upon the scene, it appears to be animated due to how lifelike the representation of wildlife is. My mouth gaping open, due to the power of the scene, I can hardly believe the soft feathers are all carved from wood. Before the exhibit ends on April 20, come travel to the Historic New Orleans Collection and be astounded by the collection of carved wildfowl, from ducks to pelicans to owls. Don’t be surprised if you think you see one move!