The obvious connotation of decoy carving, to most of us, is, of course, duck hunting. But for Rich Smoker, looking—witnessing “the singular beauty of birds on the wing and on the water or ground"—was a natural progression from shotgun to spotting scope.
He grew up on an island in the Susquehanna River, hunting and fishing with his family and neighbors—all part of rural life on the water in mid-20th-century Pennsylvania. Every fall, when air conditioners go off and you can sleep with the windows open, Rich thinks back to that time of lying awake, smelling the air and wanting to get out there, to witness the season and “see the natural progression of the day."
The progression of Rich’s days took him, after 18 years as a taxidermist, to the town of Crisfield—about as far south as you can go in Maryland and still have solid ground under your feet. Crisfield was the home of Steve and Lem Ward, known as the godfathers of decoy carving as an art form, and Rich’s move there in 1982 marked his transition to full-time decoy carving. He has since then settled for good a few miles north in the hamlet of Marion Station.
Since the Ward brothers passed on, Rich has become recognized as a master of decoy carving, and today he plays an integral role in the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art in Salisbury, Maryland, which named him a Living Legend in 2017.
Decoy carving combines deep knowledge of biology, behavior, sculpture and painting in a delicate balance. Mastery, for Rich, is a matter of observation, detail, and recognizing uniqueness wherever it is found. “You take [a] single decoy, and... you look at it, it’s singleness, and you get to see what [the maker] had in mind.” In his fieldwork, he pays particular attention to the rare species and unusual sights of southeastern Maryland.
His pursuit of the crucial detail is single-minded: in Crisfield, he kept an aviary on his place. Burying an oil drum in the earth enabled him to see the birds at eye level: “You get to know them personally, intricately... When you look at [one] in the eye, you can actually see that bird, and each one is totally different.” Lifting decoy carving from the creation more or less generic objects, to an art that celebrates the absolute uniqueness of its subjects has been Rich’s life work: “You have to add life to it."