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A. Elmer Crowell

A. Elmer Crowell: Life-sized Decorative Curlew by A.E. Crowell

Life-sized Decorative Curlew by A.E. Crowell

American

1862 - 1952

Decoys and decorative bird carvings are one of the only truly American art forms, and each one reflects the diversity of America: the waterways and landscapes the bird inhabits, the method of hunting prevalent in that region, and the creativity of the carver who created it. The earliest decoys, some 1,000 years old, were crafted by Native Americans from sticks, skins and feathers. Colonial settlers followed their examples but created more durable and reusable versions from carved and painted wood. The craft grew and flourished throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries as more men began hunting for both food and sport.

The best examples capture the essential appearance, attitude and animation of the bird. Without question, A. Elmer Crowell was one of the best. 

Crowell was born on Cape Cod and grew up on a cranberry farm in East Harwich. At age twelve, Crowell’s father gave him a shotgun, and the young boy amused himself by devising ways to get birds to land on the lake near his home. Although he carved some decoys, he primarily used live decoys – tethered geese and ducks he trained to lure wild birds as they flew over his pond during their migration. His reputation as a hunter and decoy trainer grew, and around 1900 he was asked to manage a hunting camp on Wenham Lake owned by affluent Boston physician Dr. John C. Phillips.

Following the Civil War, advances in weaponry and the romanticism of “the hunt” by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt led to the proliferation of private sporting clubs, where gentlemen hunters would gather for both sport and camaraderie. Crowell worked at this kind of club for nearly a decade, primarily building blinds and training live decoys, although he did continue his forays into decoy and bird carving.

By 1912, the bird species had been so thoroughly depleted Massachusetts outlawed the sale of migratory birds. The era of “The Great Hunt” was over. No longer able to make a living training live decoys, Crowell, at age 50, turned to carving.

Perhaps it was innate ability coupled with a lifetime spent observing and interacting with his subjects that enabled Crowell to create such exceptional carvings. His decorative pieces were carved with such delicate features they achieve a sinuous, sculptural quality, and his unique “wet on wet” painting technique gives plumage a distinct softness and realism. Crowell is also notable for the extraordinary range of birds he carved – more than 200 kinds of ducks, shorebirds, songbirds and upland game birds.

Miniatures, in particular, were a commercial endeavor for Crowell. They made an attractive souvenir for tourists visiting the Cape. His market ranged from hunters, to bird lovers, to schools and museums wanting to display bird likenesses. Documented visitors to Crowell’s shop included DuPonts, Rockefellers and Henry Ford.

Crowell officially began working with his son, Cleon, in the early 1920s. The two continued to carve and paint together until Elmer’s death in 1952.   

Crowell’s legacy is an important and lasting contribution to American art and culture. His decoys and decorative carvings have enormous appeal because they’re a tangible reminder of the art of the hunt, comradeship between men, and the grandeur of the American landscape.

Last updated: October 29, 2012

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