Michigan folk art comes alive in wooden fish decoys

Craig “Curly” Spink swirls a hand-made jig above a water-filled 15-gallon galvanized steel tub in his Kalamazoo back yard, tugging and relaxing the line attached to a wooded fish decoy he carved and painted. He’s trying to make it swim as realistically as possible.

“This is how I test them,” Spink told the Kalamazoo Gazette. “See, how I can make it go slower?”

Getting the right feeling for swimming his fish decoys around in a circle is more than making lures for spear fishing, he is preparing for the annual Great Lakes Fish Decoy Carving and Collecting Association’s World Championships of Fish Decoy Carving competition, on Sept. 18-19, in Monroe.

Spink said his inspiration comes from his grandfather Bill Leithold, who ran fishing expeditions with a float plane into the boundary waters of Northern Minnesota and Canada. He recalls fishing right off of the plane’s pontoons as a kid and admiring the beauty of the bass, trout, walleye and northern pike.

Carving in a small workshop in his basement, Spink holds a template of a rainbow trout he traced from a fish caught on the Kalamazoo River.

“From this, I carved a fish out of dimensional lumber,” Spink said. “This one is going to an oil painting artist in Minnesota.”

Spink has been wood working for years and also builds for the Heritage Guitar Co. inside the old Gibson factory on Kalamazoo’s north side.

Producing hundreds of fishing decoys, Spink also carves fish and wildlife folk pieces he describes as cabin art.

“I’m not trying to make perfectly polished replicas of fish models,” said Spink, “but rather ‘folk art’ that follows the tradition of hand-carved wooden decoys produced for spear fishing decades ago.”

“I trying to keep the “Cadillac style” alive, said Spink, a fish decoy style created by master carver Oscar “Pelee” Peterson in the early 1900s, and works that are collectable and highly valued decorative art.

Spink hopes to get the word out about his traditional carvings and grow an appreciation for this style of Michigan folk art.

The gallery at Brakeman Design features Curl’s Carving during the June Art Hop and Spink took fourth prize in the 2014 West Michigan Area Show for his life-size Sturgeon over Sticks.

Spink said his art preserves a Michigan tradition, one that Native Americans once used to fish Michigan lakes.

“It’s so exciting to watch a fish come in on a decoy, said Spink, “to watch a bass hit your folk art, it’s just such a thrill.”  (AP)

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