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From Cape May to The Palisades, New Jersey is home to diverse communities with traditional folk arts, shaped by the aesthetics and values of the cultures they represent. The State Arts Council is committed to supporting the artists at the heart of these communities, working to pass distinctive art forms from one generation to the next, and preserve their cultural legacy.
 
Each year the New Jersey State Council on the Arts awards Folk Arts Apprenticeship Grants to help Apprentice artists hone their skills under the guidance of a Master artist in the same craft. Here we shine a light on their work: from them, to us, to you, we are "Passing It On".

Decoys of South Jersey
A Conversation on South Jersey Traditions with J.P. Hand, Heather Lucadema & Alex Hascha

 
Goshen Farm in Goshen, NJ - Master Decoy Carver, J.P. Hand creating patterns for carving with Apprentices - Heather Lucadema & Alex Hascha

If art is a form of human expression, what is decoy carving expressing? While sitting and talking with South Jersey master decoy carver, J.P. Hand, it doesn't take long to realize that at its heart, this practice is an expression of a way of life; a way of life which embraces the commingling of humans and nature. Ongoing relationships between them have created a culture still present in South Jersey today. Historically, decoy carving is a tradition tied to the earliest settlers of NJ's coastal communities and the unique environment of this region. If you trace the history of the settlement of Cape May County, you will likewise trace the area's traditions of making decoys. Along America's east coast settlements, Hand tells us, "the exact origin of the craft in time is not known, but likely started in the early to mid 1800's". Back then, South Jersey was home to a bountiful and diverse populous of waterfowl such as shorebirds, ducks and geese. This was an environment that not only served the local settlers, but, over time, attracted wealthy pleasure hunters or "sports" and commercial "market" hunters. Eventually, taking a toll on healthy waterfowl populations, shorebird hunting, was banned and remains so today. It makes sense, then, that for "the old-timers" to remain successful hunters, innovations such as skillfully handmade decoys would emerge. Enticing live birds to come in closer, the traditional duck decoy of South Jersey was, (and still is), made of Jersey cedar, (Atlantic White Cedar) - another abundant resource endemic to the region. Carving by hand with tools, such as a razor sharp hatchet and a curved gouge, is the traditional method of making decoys and continues to be practiced and taught by the likes of Hand, who comes from a familial lineage of South Jersey carvers and gunners, (traditional term for game hunters), dating back 325 years.

During a recent visit to Hand's idyllic 50-acre farm in Goshen, NJ, we saw first-hand how the entwined stories of these traditions continue. Time has a way of altering things, and there's evidence of a gradual cultural evolution in South Jersey's gunning and decoy carving. As the people and the environment changed, the cultural traditions have adapted and survived. Passed on from one master to the next, there have evolved two stories to the decoy, both of which still manifest today. One is of the making of a useful hunting tool, known as a functional decoy; the other is of the creation of a sleek, decorative form. However, they are both considered folkart; as confirmed by Hand's apprentice, Heather Lucadema who tells us, "When I collect, I love to display the old gunning style birds as art, they're art to me - they're antiques". Lucadema, along with fellow apprentice, Alex Hascha, are participants in the NJ State Arts Council's 2019 Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program, and have each just begun to undertake new projects, honing their decoy-making skills as well as their knowledge of the local culture, with Hand attentively at their side. Talking with them, you get a clear sense that as Hand puts it, "paying it forward", nourishes the culture and deepens the connections between people and the environment they are immersed in. A kinship exists between these three decoy artists and native South Jerseyans, who are doing their part to continue their folkart through simultaneously maintaining the revered ancestral methods and welcoming the artistic spirit of the practice.

 
J.P. Hand showing one of his very own carved birds in flight & discussing techniques specific to this kind of carving
 
Q & A with the Master & Apprentices

Can you tell us how and when you each began carving decoys and who you learned from?
 

JP:
I began carving about 48 years ago. I just had the impulse and needed decoys to hunt with, but no money to buy them. Just like Alex here, I started carving on my own. After a few years, I met my two mentors; the late great Hurley Conklin of Manahawkin, N.J., and the late Harry Shourds III of Seaville, N.J. Both master carvers who guided me along and shared their skill and knowledge.
 

ALEX:
I did a lot of fishing with my family growing up in South Jersey. I started fishing when I was roughly 3 years old! So, it felt natural for me to develop an interest in duck hunting. I'm mainly self taught and I did most of my learning through trial and error for the first few years. I learned what I could through online videos and looking at pictures of other carvers' decoys. I've been carving for roughly 6 years but I'd say I'm still a novice at this craft. Over the past year I started to work with a local carver, who helped me to improve. The opportunity for me to carve with Jamie (J.P.) will have a big impact. I am hoping he can pass skills on to me that he's learned from his masters.
 

HEATHER:
Well, I pretty much grew up in the duck hunting tradition. My grandpa came from an urban hunting family, and my dad is a hunter and a decoy carver, too. You could say it's a family tradition. I've been carving for a few years, but I consider myself a beginner. My first year in the Apprenticeship Program I learned so much from J.P. just by observing him and carving with him here at his workshop.
 
You all seem to share a love for South Jersey history, culture and traditions. Can you say more about the personal importance of that?
 
JP: Where do I begin! My ancestors are a part of the heritage here and I've become the culture I was raised in. I celebrate that. One of the things I appreciate most is that I've been able to teach others what I know. Because of decoy making, my wife says that our farm is 'like a community center'! I consider the most important part of my legacy to be the carvers that I have shared my skills and knowledge with over the years - and not just people from South Jersey, but all over America, 'Muricans', as I like to call us multicultural people.

ALEX: I absolutely love history! My dad is a big history buff, and there's a lot of history here. I think it's important to know the history surrounding these cultural activities as you engage in them yourself. I rarely pass up the opportunity to speak with somebody who's lived in Brick (where I'm from) their entire life. It's also important for me to learn as much as I can about the art of decoy carving and its history because there are fewer and fewer young adults interested in these topics. If this tradition, history and lore all start to be forgotten it will be very difficult to bring them back. By continuing to learn, I might be able to help preserve them and then pass them down to future generations.

HEATHER: I was born in Cape May and live there now where hunting is part of the history and my family's history, too. I've been involved in hunting, carving, and collecting decoys since I was as a young child. As soon as my sister and I could walk, we were going out on the meadow with our dad. Now, creating a decoy gives me a sense of accomplishment. It's become about passing on the traditions, because if not me and others who love this, who's going to do it? I hope to make carving a continual part of my life.

Heather and Alex, what are you going to work on during this Apprenticeship? J.P. you can weigh in here as well!
 
ALEX: I've decided to start with something kind of ambitious - a flying grouse.

JP: I've never made a flying grouse myself! It'll be new for both of us. We're looking at bird books and discussing what we already know about the species. I'm looking forward to it!

ALEX: Yeah, Jamie says my first assignment is to become the grouse! I love the grouse - it's the first bird I ever hunted. I'll have to think about the anatomy of the bird to help get it right. It'll definitely

HEATHER: There are several things I need to improve on like using the bandsaw and other tools. I'm pretty confident in my painting abilities, but I'd like to learn more about traditional paint patterns and tricks to creating clean wing lines. I like the artistic experience of painting what I carve.

JP: Heather is a talented young carver. She came in first place in the shorebird rig competition at the Tuckerton Decoy Show! She's (another) example of a woman making her way and holding her own in a traditionally male dominated folk art.

Can you tell us something about your relationship to the natural environment in South Jersey and how these traditions tie in?
 
ALEX: There's nothing like the feeling of putting out your own decoys and seeing how they work, seeing the birds respond to something you've made.

HEATHER: I love this environment and I believe in supporting hunters, decoy carvers, and the conservation of waterfowl and their habitat.

JP: I've often said that my church is the woods, the fields, and the salt meadows.

 
 
2nd year Apprentice, Heather Lucadema on Goshen Farm, holds one of J.P. Hand's favorite resident chickens

 
 
J.P. Hand and 1st year Apprentice - Alex Hascha working together on the start of a new project under the shade of the trees on Hand's farm


- Follow J.P. Hand on Instagram -a social media platform that has helped promote this folkart! Instagram Logo - Link - https://www.instagram.com/jphand_capemay/

- Check out the State of the Arts Feature -
 
The Art of the South Jersey Duck Decoy


The title for this publication was inspired by Rita Moonsammy's book entitled,
Passing it On, Folk Artists and Education in Cumberland County, New Jersey, published in 1992.


Click HERE for additional information about the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, their Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program and other Grant Opportunities for New Jersey's Artists.

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The New Jersey State Council on the Arts, created in 1966, is a division of the NJ Department of State. The Council was established to encourage and foster public interest in the arts; enlarge public and private resources devoted to the arts; promote freedom of expression in the arts; and facilitate the inclusion of art in every public building in New Jersey. The Council receives direct appropriations from the State of New Jersey through a dedicated, renewable Hotel/Motel Occupancy fee, as well as competitive grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. To learn more about the Council, please visit 
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