RD Wilson talks ducks, painting and skills learned over 35 years
by Lacey Thacker Photography by Novo StuDIO
When he was working in advertising in Little Rock in the 1960s, RD Wilson was diagnosed with cancer. “I went to get a flight physical and they found I had cancer. I said, ‘I’m not going to wear a suit and a tie if I’m going to die!’” He’d always wanted to hunt over his own ducks, so he made a dozen and had the best hunt of his life. During that hunt, on a lake near Lonoke, RD noticed a group across the lake wasn’t having any luck, but RD quickly got his limit. The group from across came over and asked if they could hunt with RD, which made him decide, “If I live, I’m going to do this.” RD has been working as a decoy carver ever since, with a few other career moves along the way.
RD taught art, then moved into journalism and coaching. “I got my teaching certificate and ended up teaching for about eight years. I started working with learning disabled kids, and I know sign language so I worked with the deaf kids.” As RD tells this, he begins signing, appearing as comfortable as if it were his first language. “I carved to make extra money, and after I quit teaching I went out west and worked for a wildlife museum for three and a half years.” Much of his work at the museum was in repairing the large collection of antique decoys housed there.
RD’s workshop today is a relatively small building on his 40-acre property hidden in plain view in Little Rock. His cabin and workshop overlook a large, scenic pond, and his screened porch provides a great view of the ducks who regularly flock to his body of water.
As real as RD’s ducks look, it’s no wonder he’s had good luck hunting over them. Of course, developing his skill has taken 35 years of practice.
He does three main types of decoy: proper decoys, intended for luring in live birds; antique-style decoys that, he says, usually end up on someone’s mantel; and fancy ducks, such as the wood duck he’s currently putting the finishing touches on. Regardless of the type of bird he’s carving, the process is the same. First, RD draws an outline of his planned carving. From there, he draws the outline onto a block of wood, which he then cuts out with a band saw.
Next, RD uses a sander to shape and smooth the duck. Sometimes, a wing or the feet might be carved separately and then attached, to give the decoy a better sense of dimension. “Then I start putting the detail in them. I carve each feather,” he says.
Finally, the artist begins to paint. RD notes that, after all his years of practice, he’s able to paint a bit faster than many other carvers, which gives him some advantage in speed. He picks up a paintbrush, dips it in paint and then pauses before breaking into a grin and saying, “I just don’t feel right painting…I tell you why: I always have something in my mouth when I’m painting!” he says, before grabbing a paintbrush and holding it between his teeth.
Though the expert painting job and the realistic texture created by hand-cutting the feathers are both significant aspects of the quality of the decoy, it’s the eyes, RD says, that really make the duck come alive. “The wood duck is known for its bright red eyes. There’s a taxidermy eye in there. I paint over it, and then, once you scrape the old paint off, it just comes alive.” He demonstrates, and the transformation is stunning.
Old decoys were painted with lead oil paint, but it’s almost impossible to find now, so RD has had to come up with alternate methods to age the decoys. “I soak it in coffee for a couple days. It raises the grain and makes it look old. That’s actually horsehide glue. When I put it on there, it gives the texture of old paint.”
“There’s not a whole lot of guys who do what I do now. I guess that’s good; if there were a whole lot of guys, it wouldn’t be special.”