Rich Smoker

by Dana Kester-McCabe

Rich Smoker is a master waterfowl sculptor from Marion Station, Maryland. He has what many artists dream of: a life making art for a living. But, he's not in it for the money. What Rich wants people to see is a guy who loved his work, who loved going to his shop every day.

His carvings have won prizes at the highest levels of competition. This includes best in show in the shooting rig division. Rich has been carving all of his life. Rich Smoker was named a Living Legend in 2016 by the Ward Foundation.

While a teenager in Pennsylvania he started duck hunting and did not have the money to buy decoys so his father who was a high school shop teacher showed him how to make his own. Rich was hooked and has been carving ever since. After finishing school Rich apprenticed with a taxidermist for nine years. He specialized in preserving birds, but also did small mammals and bears. The taxidermy studio worked on animals that been caught all over the world. This work taught him a great deal about the anatomy of birds and other wildlife. All the while Rich was carving on his own.

Eventually he tired of as he put it all the blood, guts, and gore. He decided to strike out on his own and concentrate on carving. He has been making his living as a carver ever since. He feels it is what he was born to do.

Rich uses different woods for different types of projects. If he is carving decorative birds he will use tupelo gum from the southern Gulf states. It has little grain and is light and easy to carve. If he is doing a working decoy that will be used for hunting he uses white cedar or white pine for their durability. He also uses these for replicas of antique decoys. He will use harder woods like America Holly for those parts of the bird that need special structural support. There are so many beautiful woods to choose from that he does not limit himself. Likewise he does not limit himself by having favorite bird subjects.

He doesn't do just ducks because he finds it too boring to do one thing for too long. When asked what is his favorite bird - he replies: "It's the next one." An, Rich has carved over 3,000 birds. He spends a lot of time researching whatever is his next project. Since much of his work comes from commissions, some of his ideas are based on their requests. The rest come from his own inspiration.

When beginning a project he goes through his library of books, photographs, castings, and his collection of over two hundred mounted birds from around the world. Using calipers he draws a pattern which he transfers to block of wood. Then he begins what he calls the "reduction" process with a hatchet, or spoke shave. He finishes up with power tools and sanding. Then he says the fun begins which is the painting.

Rich says what her really loves to do is sit and paint. "I can just get lost in that." He says that if you use your imagination, and can imagine it, "you can get it out of the wood."

Rich says for those starting out that learning their subject is the first step. He tells his students to get to know one bird at a time and each bird will help you with the other birds. He says that his creative process makes use of his intellect, hisemotions, and his spirituality.

He says that you need all three, that "a man who works with his hands is a laborer. A man who works with his hands and his mind is a craftsman. And a man who works with his hands, his mind, and his heart is an artist." As a carver he says you are trying to bring life out of a dead block of wood.

Rich says that though it is called carving, it is actually sculpture. But, it is also painting. Both are disciplines that take a life time to master making this a very difficult art form.

Carving hunting decoys began not as a folk art, but as hand crafted tools used to bring food to the table. Rich reminds us that today we recognize all the style and artistry those earlier carvers brought to their work.

The Ward World Championship Carving Competition in April and the Easton Waterfowl Festival in November are the only shows Riche enters each year. Those two events keep him busy the rest of the year with commissions which he is grateful for. He says that he has to hide anything he does for those shows, because otherwise patrons who visit his shop will try to buy up all his inventory. He gives a lot of his time serving on the parent organizations of those and he teaches.

Find out more about Rich on his FaceBook page or at The Ward Foundation website.