Introduction to Decoys to Decoratives

By the mid 1950’s Douglas Miller was developing an interest in decoys. He grew up in the Grand Rapids, MI area and was already a seasoned hunter. In 1957 he moved to Chicago where he first became interested in looking at and knowing more about art in general. In 1957, at the age of 21, he had beginings of a collection of nature and sporting art, assuring him that he was also collecting hunting decoys to support his bird hunting passions.

While he had an interest in decoys, he knew very little about them, and was not seriously focused on them. Miller, who liked to hunt, was a member of Ducks Unlimited, the waterfowl conservation group. It was at a DU event in St. Joseph, Michigan when he first met Jim Foote. Foote was a wildlife biologist working for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. He was also a part time bird carver who participated in bird carving contests. Miller was curious about this and visited with Foote for the first time in 1972 at his studio. While there he purchased three eiders made by Foote. With Foote’s encouragement, Miller attended the International Decoy Contest in Davenport, Iowa in 1972. He realized he could learn a great deal about the art of decoy making and bird carving at these events. He found the prize winners were picked by both carvers and collectors, giving them a stamp of approval they could get nowhere else. It was in that same year that Miller began to seriously collect the prize winners from these contests insuring him that he was getting the very best being made at that time.

By the early 1970’s bird carving contests had begun to make a comeback at community events. A number of books had been published in the 1960’s that were focused on the history and makers of decoys. A number of decoy magazines also started publication, including Harold Sorensen’s Decoy Collectors Guide and Brian Cheever’s North American Decoys. They focused on old decoy history, and all of the contemporary news about bird carving contests and the bird carvers who competed in them.

As Doug Miller became more fascinated by the direction he saw this unique art form taking, he became more and more involved in encouraging artists to sculpt birds. While he remained committed to the decoys and the American traditions that supported their creation, Miller felt he could add or encourage the future development of this American art form of bird carving. If you look at the Miller collection, the viewer will notice that the carvings he initially collected still followed along the visual lines and paint styles that decoys had always followed. At the time he was collecting decoys by people like J.J. West, Harold Haertel, John McLoughlin and John Zachmann.

He encouraged the bird carvers by purchasing prize winning carvings from contests being held throughout the country. By the 1970’s the carvings were looking less and less like decoys and more and more like actual birds. Miller contributed prize money to more than ten bird carving competitions being presented throughout the United States. With his commitment, resources and support of both the venues and the artists, the art form changed. Contests continued to look at the Introduction 6 decoy traditions and also the creativity and skills of the artist in making life size birds. He was curious to see what would happen if he became a patron to some of the more outstanding artists, bird carvers and wildlife painters. By 1973 he had started hiring bird carvers to make bird carvings for the Wildlife World Museum in Monument, Colorado. Over the years he supported more than fifteen bird sculptors and wildlife painters. The decoys started to become even more detailed. More work and thought was being put into making the carvings. The bird carvers were looking for new and creative ways of presenting their carved birds.

In 1974 he provided the prize money for the life size decorative class at the World Championship Wildfowl Carving Competition held every year in Salisbury, Maryland by the Ward Foundation. This was the first time a large cash prize had been offered. It changed the way artists approached the presentation of their wooden bird sculptures. Now whole environments and complex interactions were being added to the presentation.

The art form continued to change dramatically. The artists Miller supported quickly became important prize winners at the regional competitions. Because of the exposure they received at many of these events, their ideas and ways of presenting their creations influenced a whole generation of artists. In the 1950s many bird carvers came from an outdoors tradition and lifestyle. By the mid 1970’s individuals, amateur and professional, had entered the field who had university degrees in a number of areas. Many of them were professional artists, no longer competing for trophies as much as commissions and a cash purse. The understanding of the live bird and the carved bird was evolving with the changing background of the various artists.

Doug Miller rapidly fell in love with the art form of decorative bird carving. Collecting the bird sculptures became his passion and obsession. For over forty years he has continued to support artists and events, all the while watching the art of decorative bird carving grow in popularity and complexity. He has collected over 3,000 works by over two hundred of the most successful and talented bird carvers working in the United States. Mostly acquired during the last quarter of the twentieth century, Miller’s collection is an excellent document or study of the development of an art form over five decades.

Kenneth A. Basile, First and now retired Director of the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art, Salisbury University, Salisbury, MD