Ep. 555 – Eastern Shore Hunting and Decoy Carving with Greyson Chesser

Katie Burke: Hi, everybody. Welcome back to the Ducks Unlimited podcast. It's your host, Katie Burke. And I am here, kind of a little bit different situation. I am not in the studio. I am here at decoy carver and hunting guide, Grayson Chesser's decoy shop right now on his property in Virginia. Thank you for having me and welcome to the show, Grayson.
Grayson Cheeser: Y ou're welcome, glad to have ya.

Katie Burke: Yeah. So we talked a little bit about this in the little video we just did. So maybe we'll sort of repeating some of those things, but let's give the audience that may not have watched that and are listening to this a little bit of background on how you got into hunting and carving because people care about hunting as well as carving on this show.

Grayson Cheeser: Well, you know, I grew up in a hunting family. I mean, as far back as I can remember, you know, and the stories from my family, because my family's been here ever since the 1600s. Here where I live, part of the land has never been sold out of the family since, you know, it goes all the way back to land grant. back in the 1600s. The house I live in was where my great-grandfather lived and where my mother was born. When we got married, we moved here. It was pretty dilapidated, only three trees on the entire property. I saw the woods down here by the creek. You can see how many trees we've planted.

Katie Burke: Yeah, that's kind of unbelievable to think you only had three trees.

Grayson Cheeser: That's right. That's all it was. When I was a kid, I always thought, boy, I'd love to live in the middle of a refuge. That's basically what I live in the middle of now. The older you get, I think, the more you like being surrounded by life. Just before you got here, I was watching two piloted woodpeckers on a tree right here in front of my shop. You know we have all kinds of stuff here even you wouldn't think so but I've seen black rail here which are on endangered species lists now. Seen them here twice and you know we've got warm season grasses, pollinators, planted a lot of hardwoods, you know, with the CREP program. And so, once I got, because I farmed for a good while, maybe until 82. And, but over the years, tried to make it into like a hunting property because that's what I was always interested in. I'd probably been a heck of a lot better farmer if it hadn't been for hunting, but hunting was my passion. That and carving too. And the two things just went together. And that's one of the reasons why I've been successful because, you know, I think probably I'm what people think of when they think of a decoy carver, because my father was a game warden. I was a game warden for a while. My family been here for hundreds and hundreds of years. And this is what we've always done. They lived off the land. And a friend of mine asked me one time, Bobby Richardson from Cambridge, It was a decoy, well-known decoy dealer. And I've done a lot of things with Smithsonian. And he asked me, he said, Bobby talks real proper. And he said, Grayson says, I've got a question I'd like to ask you, but I don't want to offend you. I said, Bobby, you're not going to offend me. We've been friends for decades. He said, well, I'm afraid I might. I said, you're not going to offend me. He said, Well, Grayson, he said, you know, I respect your carving ability, and I think you're a great carver. He said, but what I want, he said, you know as well as I do there are a lot of other great carvers. I said, yeah, it is. And he said, well, why does Smithsonian keep asking you to do things? I said, well, Bobby, that's easy. I said, because if you're behind times a little bit, you're just backward. But if you're behind times enough, you're a museum exhibit. And he said, let me tell you, that explains it very well. I could never explain it any better than that. And let me say, they made a wonderful choice.

Katie Burke: You know, it's true. We were just talking about Cameron, who you're friends with, and he gets a lot of attention because he lives such a different life.

Grayson Cheeser: He does, and Cameron was always that way, even when he was, I guess I met him, he was probably maybe 12 years old, and he's always been that way.

Katie Burke: I'm guessing you were that way too, right? Did you just kind of grow and have an old soul? Actually curious about things?

Grayson Cheeser: Yeah, I mean, really and truly, I can't really imagine people that are bored. I mean, all you got to do is go out and look around. And I mean, the world is just absolutely full of incredibly amazing things. I mean, that's one of the things I love so much about God. And people will say, well, how in the world did you do that every day? And I mean, one year I counted up, I carried hunting parties like 72 days. And they say, how do you do that? And I say, one of the happiest moments of my life is when I get aboard that boat and cut the engine on. Because it's like, what am I going to see today that I've never seen before and will never see again? And I've seen amazing things that most people have never seen. Thoreau wrote about duck hunting and talking about how the men get up in the dark and go down through the coarse grass with long rubber boots and long Fallon guns. all the things they see that the people who stay at home in their parlors will never see. And yeah, I mean he hit it exactly on the head because it's absolutely true.

Katie Burke: It is. So when did you start guiding?

Grayson Cheeser: Well, when I was a kid, You know, from the time I was about 13, 14 years old, I mean, my dream would be to be a decoy carver and a hunting guide. Well, at that time, there was no demand for decoys, none. And like I mentioned before, You know, there were hardly any carvers from the World War II generation, but a lot from the World War II. I mean, World War I were still alive. They were like my grandfather's generation. And, you know, I just really gravitated towards those guys, and they taught me so much. not just about hunting, which they did, but about life. And that's, I wanted to be like them, you know. And, you know, I mean, I've been paid for having carving classes, you know, taught at community college carving class for a while. I always felt guilty about taking money for it because none of those guys charged me a penny. And I always felt like if there was anything I could do to pass carving on and hunting too because to me the two things are inseparable and that I was going to do it and that's what I try to do and you know if somebody asked me what's What I'm proudest of are the things that, what's come out of my shop. It's some of the guys who've worked with me or that I've helped get started carving or a guide with me, you know, and most of them, well, all of them have done well. You know, they may not be world famous carvers, but they've all done well and I couldn't be prouder of them.

Katie Burke: Yeah. So what was, who were some of those first carvers that kind of let you in and kind of gave you a, let you, let them, you had to listen to, or they listened to you?

Grayson Cheeser: Oh, probably Myles Hancock was the biggest influence on me because, you know, he, he started market hunting way before the turn of the century. He started marking up when he was like 12, 13 years old. Was a market hunter until it was outlawed, even after it was outlawed. And then he guided for years and was a well-known decoy carver. His decoys aren't as artistic as a lot of other people, but you know, his decoys were incredibly serviceable, and when you put them on the water, they looked like a duck. And, you know, a lot of people, especially people who have never hunted but are interested in decoys, I think that's something they miss because it's like, how do you learn about sailboats just by looking at them if you've never used one? And I tell people, I said, anybody can make a good decoy. Anybody. I don't care how, you don't have to have any artistic ability to make a good decoy. But to make a great decoy, you have to have artistic ability too. And it's harder to make a good decoy and a good piece of art than it is just to make a good decoy or a good piece of art. because with decoys, you're constrained by the fact that it has to be a decoy, artistically sometimes, because you can't do something, you know, like you might not want to make a super thin neck because you know it's not going to last, or a super thin bill. It's just, because decoys are like little boats. They have to float right. That's that functionality. That's right. And Miles Hancock was great at that because George Ryger, used to be the editor of Field and Stream. He did a book one time years ago called Floaters and Stickups. And he had a picture of these geese in a pond. and a live goose sitting with them. And it was Madison Mitchell, Lem Ward, Charlie Birch, Miles Hancock, and it seemed like maybe it was somebody else. And all of them are considered, you know, their decoys bring more money than Miles Hancock's do. But with them sitting there with a real goose, Miles Hancox looks more like the real goose than the guys who are far better known than he is. And the photographer who did the work for the book, Ken Garrett, I saw the picture, and the book is in black and white, but I saw the picture in color, and in color it's even more noticeable. And so, He was a great influence on me. Lloyd Tower up to Crisfield. He'd been a market hunter for a while. And when he was young, and the Ward brothers, and not only them, but where I started collecting decoys as soon as I started carving and as soon as I started hunting, I had a lot of other influences too, like Dave Watson and especially the Cobbs. Because to make a good decoy, what I consider one, you know, it has to look like it's alive. A block of wood that you've carved and trying to make it into something that looks like it's alive. Well, the main way you can do that is by giving the illusion of motion. And so what I always try to do And it was one of the things I really loved about the Cobbs, you know, they were all dead for years and years and years before I was born. But if you look at Nathan Cobb's decoys, So many of them have that. Even ones that are in kind of like a resting pose, they give you this illusion of life. Because, you know, I've always felt like that that's the most important thing you can do. And, you know, whoever can do that With the least amount of paint and the least amount of strokes with a knife, he's the master. You know, when I started carving, the only decoy books on carving you had was Eugene Conant's, Dr. Coy's and how to make them. And I was lucky enough, I got a copy of that at the Shelburne Museum when I was, I don't know, 13 years old maybe. And that really influenced me a lot. But it was, you know, I tell people, I don't carve what I see in a book. I try to carve what I see in my mind's eye. Because, you know, when you look at a forest, You don't see the individual trees, you see the forest. And that's what I try to do, because sometimes the more detail you add, The human eye is not like a camera and the human mind is not like a camera. You know, when you look at a picture or when you look at a mounted bird right there in front of you, you see things that you don't see out in the wild. And so I tried to I try to keep it as, I try not to paint feathers, I try to paint the illusion of feathers. And I try, you know, when you look at a duck, they look incredibly soft. So that's what I try to do. You know, sometimes I think I succeed fairly well. Sometimes I fall on my face. But anyway, that's my goal. And the other thing, too, is I always got much more satisfaction out of making a rig of hunting decoys than on an individual bird. Because it's just like if you look at a painting of The Last Supper. You know, you don't pick out individual disciples. You know, it's a whole thing, and it's the way they interact together. And that's what you can do when you're making a rig of decoys. You can, you know, you can make that interaction. I always said, you know, if I was a duck flying by, would I want to join a ducks that were all sitting there with their heads straight ahead, no matter how good they are. Or would I want to join a crowd where some of them are feeding, some of them are sleeping, some of them are swimming. And I tried to make them like they're having a good time and having a big party. And it's a whole different thing. It's the difference between painting a mural and painting a vignette.

Katie Burke: No, it makes perfect sense. Well, to me it did.

Grayson Cheeser: I don't know what it does to everybody, but that's what I try to do. And I think my decoys look better in a group on the water than they ever will sitting anywhere on a shelf.

Katie Burke: Okay, so when you're like planning this out, say you're making the patterns for a rig, do you think about the action of each duck in that rig when you're making the pattern? Are you doing that as you're going?

Grayson Cheeser: Well, you know, the thing with ducks is they don't have hands. They don't have all the things that we have that we use to communicate, like you're sitting there with your legs, one leg crossed, you look like you're comfortable. You don't see that with a duck. A duck's body is pretty much the same regardless of what they're doing when they're sitting on the water. All the life is in from the neck up, and they don't have facial expressions like we do. So all the life is basically from where the body ends and the neck starts, and then where the head starts. Of course, the head has something to do with it, too.

Katie Burke: And it's all about positioning.

Grayson Cheeser: It is, and if the, you know, if the duck's got a real high head, he may not be scared, but he's a little nervous, he's a little alert. If he's got it pulled down, tucked down, he's content, you know. If he's got a little bit of forward lean to his head, it gives the illusion that he's kind of swimming. Or if you want to go a little further and have his head out further, you know, you give the illusion that he's feeding. Or, you know, or you could have it turned and tucked into his feathers and he'd be sleeping. Or his head on his back, but you know, like he's preening. You know, to me, you have to spend a tremendous amount of time watching birds. And that's what I always enjoyed doing when I was hunting. Because, you know yourself, 99.9% of hunting is watching. And, you know, the actual shooting part is only a fraction of a second. And then it's over. And, but, The rest of it is what I liked. You know, Jose Gasset, the Spanish philosopher, he said that hunting was the ultimate intercourse with nature. And I think it is, because I love bird watching, I love being out in nature, but it's not hunting. It's not even close, because like when I'm hunting, I mean, It's like all your senses are kind of amplified, I think. You know, we've got a cat here. I'm not a cat person, my wife is, but I can't help but love this cat because he is such a hunter.

Katie Burke: I got one of those too.

Grayson Cheeser: I'm not a cat person either. I feel like strangling sometimes when I see him with a bird, but what can I say? I'm the same way. And, you know, it's like you're so focused to me, much more so than when you're just observing. Because when you're hunting, you're actually… It's probably the most intensive nature activity I think you can do.

Katie Burke: Yeah, I'm a big turkey hunter and it's even more… So I know that feeling. Okay, so this is just something I don't know if I've ever really thought about, but when you are talking about making the rig and you are such an avid hunter, when you're compiling your own rig of decoys of something you've carved, what does that mix look like? Does it change depending on where you are? How do you put that together for you?

Grayson Cheeser: If you had enough time and could make enough, yeah, it should change because, you know, some places birds go to rest, some places they go to feed, but usually I don't have enough time. It's a lot of work. Yeah, I do it for a living, so you've got to, but I try to mix it up so that they look like what I see when I watch a flock of birds and I try to carve the flock. not just the individual bird. I mean, I make individual birds. Most people, that's what they want, because they can't afford a whole rig of handmade hunting decoys. But it was really strange when the limits went down, that's when I started selling more actual decoys for guys to hunt. And a lot of the decoys I've made probably Surprising percentage of them guys have actually actually used and But what it was, you know, you're You're not going to kill but so many birds because the limit, you know, three four whatever and so guys who want to get more out of it and It gave them a better experience using handmade decoys, because there are a lot more trouble. You got to be more careful with them. You don't want to beat them up bad. It's not like you can order another rig in three or four years from Cabela's or wherever. And so you got to try to take care of them, and they're heavier, but I think a lot of guys get a lot of pleasure out of, you know, it's sort of like, well, I'm going to go so many times because the season's short, I'm going to shoot so many birds, so I want to get more out of the other things that go along with it.

Katie Burke: Yeah, so as a guide, did the guys coming hunting with you know ahead of time that they're going to hunt over wooden decoys, or were they… Oh, sometimes they didn't. I mean, I use plastic decoys just like everybody else, but… Because I would have been very shocked by that, because that was something I'd never… It was not around.

Grayson Cheeser: Well, some of them did, because The two things really go together. They complemented each other, being a decoy carver and a hunting guide. It was a lot of crossover between the two things, people that collected decoys, and people that hunted, and people that hunted, and people that collected decoys. It's been a good life, I can tell you that. If I don't live to see the sunset, I don't want anybody to feel sorry for me because I've had as good a life as any man could have. My wife was very involved in it. Boy, she was a wonderful salesman. Because the thing is, even if you're a really good carver or a really good artist, If you can't sell your work, you're dead in the water. You have to be a good salesman. My wife was an excellent one. And I got better as time went on, but, you know, she's been a tremendous support to a man. She was great when we were guiding because she took care of the lodge and oversaw the lodge and all the meals. And I mean, we ate like kings.

Katie Burke: Yeah, and they stayed right here on property? Yeah. What was that like? I mean, we've, I've taken, you know, well, we aren't a guiding service, but I have, we've hosted people to hunt all of my life. And, you know, early, early days, they stayed in our house for a long time until probably about 15 years ago, we finally had somewhere else for them to stay. And it was a neat, a neat way to grow up and meet people.

Grayson Cheeser: Yeah, I mean, I was thinking the other day, I've guided people from every continent except Australia and Antarctica. Wow. I mean, you know, it kind of blew my mind when I really stopped and thought about it. But, you know, met people from all over the world and, you know, I was very fortunate because through decoys, that's how I picked up a lot of the hunters that I went with or carried. And I shot with my hunters because they weren't paying me enough money not to hunt.

Katie Burke: And why not get another limit while you're there?

Grayson Cheeser: Well, you know, I mean, I just, I love to hunt, and they weren't paying me enough not to hunt. And the boys that guided with me, I say, treat these people just like they were your best friend who doesn't get much chance to hunt, and you want him to have the best experience he can have. And if that's not good enough for them, then just go somewhere else. And I met such good people. And about once every five years, you'd get a jerk. And I felt like the good Lord sent them to you to make sure that you appreciated all the good people you had.

Katie Burke: Those are good odds, though.

Grayson Cheeser: Oh, real good, real good. But I never advertised. You know, I always got so much free advertising in articles and books and things that I didn't have to. And because of that, almost everybody who hunted with me you know, sort of knew what to expect. And if it was somebody who had nighted with me before and called me, first thing I'd tell them, I'd say, you know, there are probably more ducks that die from flying into light lines in Cameron Parish, Louisiana than what we kill here. I said, but, you know, we've got some beautiful places to hunt, We hunt the seaside over on behind the barrier islands and on the bay side and fields and ponds and open water. I said, so we've got pretty places to hunt. If you hunt with me three days, you're probably going to have one good day, one bad day, and one average day. You know, and if they were still with me after that, I figured, well, it's a pretty good chance that we're going to make out good.

Katie Burke: Yeah. Well, you know, if you give good food, too, it helps.

Grayson Cheeser: Oh, I've had people who hunted with me who never fired a shot and came, you know, like they were hunting one day and came back again. And but I mean, we ate like kings. I ate so much crab. I used to tell people I thought I was going to start walking sideways. I mean, We had crab soup, I bet you five days a week, cream of crab soup, you know, clam chowder, and oyster stew, and rockfish, and flounder stuffed with crab meat, and you know, single fried oysters, and we always had somebody here to do the cooking, but my wife oversaw everything, and she did a lot of it too, So what we try to do is make it as much like you would have experienced back in the teens or 20s if you were at a decent hunt club. And it worked good for us. And like I say, 99.9% of it I enjoyed. And when I got to the age where I just had to quit, my wife, her health wasn't that good. And we'd lost one of the main ladies that helped us here, she died. And when we turned 70, we said, well, that's it, we just can't do it anymore. I still help one of the boys that guided with me, Drew Sturgis. I help him occasionally if he needs somebody. The first year that he did it, it was one of the guys who had hunted with me for a long time, came down and he booked a hunt with him. But he told him that, He wanted me to go, too. So I went, and I told him, I said, now, Drew, I said, you know, you've worked for me, I said, and we've hunted together, I said, but this is a little different, this is a little different experience, I said, because I'm a client now, and I'll have to, I suppose, you know, certain amount of service, he said, I don't think that's gonna be a problem, I said, because I have to help you out with your waiter when I was working for you. I said, I think the Bible says something about the serpent has no sting like the tongue of an ungrateful child.

Katie Burke: Yeah, that's true. My brother and I, my dad would never let us have a dog. He would never let us have a dog because he had two. He had two children to chase ducks. Then Christopher finally got one and I love that dog so much. We were so thankful to finally have him. He would never let us have a dog. He was like, I'm not trading a dog. Yeah, it's because he made us do it every day.

Grayson Cheeser: Well, you know, I mean dogs add so much to the hunt. I've had some that were, you know, they're just like people. They're all different. They've all got their own personalities. But when I think about them, golly dave, I've been blessed. And I mean, I've seen them do things that were absolutely unreal. Oh yeah. and it really adds a lot to the hunt. I lost my last one this spring and I'm not going to get any more because it wouldn't be fair to to the dog, I told the vet, I said, you know, I said, they should never let an old man have a young woman or a young dog. I said, because it just does not work good. And the last one I had, he didn't get to hunt as much as he should have, because really, a good dog needs to be hunted almost every day.

Katie Burke: And they love it. Oh, they do. So let's go back a little bit and I kind of want to talk about your painting on your decoys a little bit. We didn't kind of go into that as much, but kind of, can you walk me through a little bit of that process of the painting side of it? We talked about the carving in the other video, but I just, I'm really interested in that part of your process.

Grayson Cheeser: Of course, when I started carving, they might have had acrylics. I don't know. I've never heard of them.

Katie Burke: I don't like them, so that's fine.

Grayson Cheeser: I was good friends with Cigar Days, and I learned a lot from him. He wasn't like the World War I generation, but he wasn't quite old enough to be in World War II. but he was one of the, you know, older carvers. Of course, he was a market hunter, and my father always wanted to catch him, but he never did. He missed him just by a hair one time, but the first time I ever went to his shop, it was a whole bunch of shrink tiggers in there, and I was maybe 16 years old, and I walked in. Of course, he knew who I was, It was a guy there named Boolam Clark, who was a big duck trapper. And he said, Boolam, so you know this guy? He said, no, I can't say I do. He said, he looks familiar. He said, well, my God, you must be related as many times as his daddy caught you duck trapping. but uh cigar loved acrylics oh my golly day he loved them and so i i used them for a few years but acrylic is plastic and it's going to look the same 100 years from now as it does now but oils they age and they get a patina and they usually the older they get the better they look acrylics not the same now like if you're the guys who made like ultra realistic stuff uh it was good for them because you you paint with washes and it helped me in the respect that I learned how to paint with washes, you know, building up color with multiple thin layers of paint. But for the most part, I do, you know, wet on wet blending, which is much easier to do with oils, combing, you know, which is an old technique that a lot of furniture makers used it to simulate grain on furniture. where you put one collar underneath and then take a graining comb and go through it. And it's especially good on anything with vermiculation. And that's one of the techniques I use. You know, I've always liked impressionistic paintings, and so that's what I try to do when I'm painting. I don't try to paint the feathers. I try to paint the illusion of feathers, which is what you see when you see a good impressionistic painting. It's not all, you know, super, super detailed, but when you look at it, it's like, oh my God, that's just what I saw. And, you know, I do dry brushing. Pretty much the same techniques that have been around, oh, you know, back, turn of the century, even before.

Katie Burke: So, I'm going to go back in farther because you mentioned, I don't know if you mentioned in this or in the other thing we did before we were talking, but you mentioned you've always been into art and just as I was this way as a kid too, but like when did that, like how did that start for you and what was it like, I mean before decoys, what was that?

Grayson Cheeser: Yeah, you know, I was a kid in class and always liked to draw. Yeah. You know, I just liked it. And I was, you know, fairly good at it. And when I got involved with decoys, well, all of a sudden, the two things I was most passionate about, this was before I met my wife, of course, you know, just came right together and it was like they were made for each other. Right. And, you know, you think about it, you know, the oldest, some of the oldest human art that it is, is, you know, like the cave paintings and, and, you know, in a way that's kind of supporting art because it, you know, it's depicting all the animals that they hunted and things like that. And when you look at those cave paintings, I mean, it's just a few lines, but you can see a bison, or you can see a horse. I remember one time I was reading where it was, I think it was Altamira Cave, or it was one of the big ones. And there was a wild cow or oxen in there. And they could never figure out what this oxen was doing. because it was, or a cow, because it was such a different shape. And one day a Basque herdsman walked through and said, oh, there's a cow giving birth. And that's, I was always very, very impressed with them because I think those guys and I come at it from the same place. And, you know, when you look at them, I mean, those animals are moving. And it's really something special when you can take something that's inanimate and make it look like, really give it the illusion of life.

Katie Burke: You know, it is something like you never expect, just to go back a little bit, you never expect sometimes the life that you end up getting. Like you saying you loved hunting and carving, and I'm sure you didn't expect that would be your life at a young age. And I feel that way with what I'm doing.

Grayson Cheeser: I'm sure you do. You know it's and especially like the carving I mean yeah you had hunting guides when I was young and you had carvers but they were all old men you know they were in their 60s 70s maybe and you know and there was no demand You could buy a War Brothers decoy for $5. I was like, oh my lord, I just spent $5 on this decoy. And when I graduated from high school, I think people gave me some money, and I had like $300. There was a guy down a little bit south of here that used to buy decoys. And I went down there, and I had $300. Nathan, well Nell Kennecobb redid an original paint for $25. Nell Kennecobb blacked up an original paint for $25. And a pair of Harry Shor's gold knives, original paint for $25. And one of the biggest collectors here on the shore, he tried to sell them to him, and he turned them down and they were too expensive. You know? And I think the redid eventually, after I got rid of it, eventually sold for 50 grand.

Katie Burke: Yeah. I asked Pete this earlier and I want to know how you feel about it too. He's, you know, he gives a funny like two-word answer and he likes to do that. You want him to elaborate, he's like, not gonna happen. But, you know, like yesterday that Ward Pentel went for $65,000. And those guys, I'm sure never, I wonder what they would think about that Pentel going for that. They got to see their stuff. They actually got to live and see their stuff.

Grayson Cheeser: They did, because when I first started going around to the workshop, they were older then, and they were making what they called their shooting stool, which really weren't. They were all going to collectors, but they were challah and made out of cedar. And they were getting $25 a piece. And, I mean, $25 sounds like nothing. But that's what a man working on a farm was getting a week back then. And then, you know, like, the more decorative things, they were getting, I don't know, $150, maybe $200 for. And finally, like, some of the geese they made, I think they got like $1,000 for. But, you know, it was a different time.

Katie Burke: Does it feel odd to think that your stuff is going to appreciate as it goes? Can you grasp that?

Grayson Cheeser: I think it will. You know, I've always said that you're the worst judge of your own stuff. Right. Because you're too closely involved with it. And I know I've made things. I've got a cart Black Duck, I mean Mauer here, that I made I think in 70, 71, 72. And when I made that, I said, oh my God, I have arrived. I had about 18 of them, and I thought that one was the best one of the bunch. And I loved that thing for years. And then I looked at it one day, and the eyes were at least a half inch too low. It bothered me so bad, I had to pop them out and put them where they should have been. And, you know, and Bill Purnell of Ocean City, It was a very good critic and very knowledgeable on decoys. And I'd made a pintail one time, and I thought she really looked good, a hen pintail. And he walked in the door and shot me. He said, good God, the bill on that duck droops worse than I won't say what he said, it droops worse, Sam. And I looked at it, I thought, I can't see it. But I knew Bill knew what he was talking about about decoys. And after about four or five days of looking at that duck, I said, you know, he's right. Which is really scary, because when you make something and you think it's good, you think, is this as good as I think it is? Or is it a piece of junk?

Katie Burke: Yeah, what else have I done this way?

Grayson Cheeser: That's right. And the Refuge Waterfowl Museum over at Shrink Day, the guy used to buy a lot of stuff from me. My daughter and I, she was about 16, I guess, and we went in there one day, and we were looking at stuff, and she looked around, and finally she said, Daddy, you know, you're lucky to sell some of this. I said, yeah, you're right.

Katie Burke: Your kids are the worst in that way. They really point out your flaws.

Grayson Cheeser: You know, you evolve over time, and most decoy carvers, almost every one I've ever seen, they start out and they get better, and they get better, and better, and better, and the lucky ones reach a peak and maintain it. But most, when they get older, they start to decline, which I'm 76, so I hope I can maintain, but who knows? I mean, your hands aren't as steady, your eyes aren't as good.

Katie Burke: You're just hoping for muscle memory right now, right?

Grayson Cheeser: Yeah, but the muscles shake.

Katie Burke: At your peak, how many decoys were you producing? And then what about like now that you're, you know, it's not nearly as… Well, I made a lot of different things.

Grayson Cheeser: I made a lot of silhouettes. I made some silhouette shorebirds for a while. And one year, I think I counted up, I made over 300. And that was about… It was either right after I quit farming or just before. But now, I might make 50 a year, something like that. That's still a lot. Yeah. I mean, I'm older. I don't have the energy I had. My wife could always work circles around me. My nickname in high school was Lightning. It wasn't because I was fast. It was because those other little suckers were meaner than snakes. You just don't have the energy that you had. My wife took care of everything except carving and hunting, and I was blessed to have a wife that was willing to do that. But now she can't do, you know, like the yard, all that, all the stuff around here. You accumulate all this stuff when you're young. You know, there's an old building, like, you know, the building over here, that was the one-room school house that was here. back in the 1800s and my grandmother taught school there in 1916 and the building over here was first it was a beer joint here at Jenkins Bridge and then it was the post office and you know you move these buildings up here and you think you've got a use for them Well, you do, but then once you slow down, you don't, but you still got to maintain them. And my wife took care of all that. I went to the Chicago show one time and came back and she'd hired two guys to help her and she'd painted the entire house. And that's just the way she was. She thought there was nothing she couldn't do and most of the time she was absolutely right. But I have to do more things that she used to do now, you know, but I got no complaints.

Katie Burke: I have one thing I didn't ask you about, and I want to make sure we talk about, is we talked about your mentors and stuff, and you even talked about spreading that to the younger generation, but what has it meant, the community of carvers that you've grown up with and you're still carving with, and how has that community shaped your life as a carver and a hunter?

Grayson Cheeser: Oh, it's wonderful. I mean, most carvers, they're kind of similar. a little bit. Now, the guys who do the ultra decorative decoys, a lot of them are different. They're much more detail-oriented people, and like when I first started doing shows for to sell my stuff, you know, they'd come by your table, and they'd look, yeah, that's nice, but you could see what they were thinking. Doesn't he want to make something better? Which to them that more detailed and more lifelike.

Katie Burke: I almost think they're too perfect.

Grayson Cheeser: Well, they are to me because, like I told you, your eye gets hung up on the detail and you don't see the whole bird. Right. And, you know, but I'm so glad I didn't go down that path because, you know, most super realistic decorative carvings don't age well, you know. just they don't wear decoys, even the ones you use. I mean, a lot of people, you know, a lot of people who collect decoys now, like I said, are people who've never really hunted. You've got an awful lot of them. And they have more of a problem, I think, with why is this one worth $300 and this one worth $3,000 or this one worth $3,000 and that one's worth $30? Well, art is subjective. I never liked art contests, really. I never liked decoy contests because it's so subjective. I've judged a lot of them. I can tell you, the first third you could throw right out. Second third takes a lot longer. The last third, it probably depends on whether you had bacon or sausage for breakfast, what you pick. Because then they're all so close together, it's hard. So you start looking for little nitpicky things. Well, we can throw that one out because of this little thing or that little thing. And the other thing, especially with the decorative birds, You know, the ultimate goal is to make an exact copy of the real bird. Well, the better everybody gets, the closer everybody gets to the same point, and the more everybody's stuff looks alike. So there's less individuality, I think. And less personality. And personality. And to me, I like looking at a decoy and you can see, Oh, Nathan Cobb made that. Dave Watson made this. R. Hudson made this. You know, Madison Mitchell made this. You know, but when you're all converging on the same point, the more everybody looks like everybody else. And I think it's self-defeating myself.

Katie Burke: Right.

Grayson Cheeser: Yeah. Because you're never going to make it like the exactly like the real bird. Yeah.

Katie Burke: Yeah, that's a good point. And the other thing that you do lose in that is that's really, I've always found really interesting is the region, how the area influences the carver too. And not just in what was being carved around him, but where he's hunting as well.

Grayson Cheeser: Absolutely. You know, I've always told people there's no such thing as the perfect decoy, because if you make it perfect for one condition, it may not be worth 10 cents. And, you know, if you make something on a small pond that's you know protected and all and you've got to walk a long ways where you want something just as light as you can and you know self-righting is not as big a deal by any means because you're probably putting the mic behind And if you're hunting in open water, you know, you got to have something that's self-righteous because you're, you know, you're putting them out in a group, you know, maybe on long lines and it's just, that's one of the things about handmade decoys, you can tailor them to wherever the guy hunts. And, you know, his hunting conditions. And that was one of the things I always liked about decoys is, you know, they're all so different.

Katie Burke: Yeah, I do. I like that. And I like, like, you know, I mean, not that one, of course, but you can walk up and you can, you can tell who's is who's for the most part. They have such, without turning them over, you have your, you can, and I think Pete called it your, your signature is like there. Oh yeah.

Grayson Cheeser: You know, everybody wants you to sign the bottom of the bird. Well, you know, if they want me to, that's fine. I always carve a C on the bottom of mine, but, um, You know, they want me to write it out and the date and everything. That's fine. I don't mind doing it. But you know, this real signature is in the carving and in the painting and in the design. And I mean, it's just like with paintings. I mean, it doesn't have to have the signature. the signatures in the paint and the way it's applied and the techniques that the man used and all that. And so, you know, I've never lost my fascination with decoys, never lost my fascination with hunting, and I certainly hope I never do.

Katie Burke: That's a good spot. All right, is there anything you want to say to our audience before we go?

Grayson Cheeser: Well, I don't know what I would say exactly. Just keep trying, do the best you can. You know, we don't live in a vacuum. You know, when I started carving, people didn't care if you copied somebody else's work. because there was no monetary value involved in it. A decoy was a decoy, it was a decoy. But now people get real upset, oh, he's copying my work. I mean, I used to be able to go to Chicago and other shows and walk down the aisle and I could tell this guy, he used a book that we did on decoy carving because I could see the things he did. And that never bothered me, because I figured if a guy can take what he learned from me, or from looking at my decoys, and if he doesn't do it as well as I did, he gets to blame. If he does it better, I get the credit. And you know, we don't live in a vacuum. And it's not like all of a sudden you're plopped down here on Earth, and you have no influences. You have to have those influences. You build on what other people have done. I mean, the way I did it was, thank the Lord, the people I copied, most of them were dead.

Katie Burke: You know, it's true. And I think about this a lot and I don't, I maybe have talked about someone else, but you know, they always like it being original art. I'm like, there's no such thing as original art. Not really. Everybody has learned from somebody and has done something and moved that forward. So yes, you're right.

Grayson Cheeser: And most of the people that I've taught, I tell people, I can't teach anybody to carve. I can teach them techniques that they can use. I can show them steps and things like that. But they have to do it themselves. And I can show them how I do it. And that's all you're doing is learning the techniques and the basics. And the ones who will really be good They'll incorporate other influences or things that they like, things that appeal to them, which may not mean as much to me, but they make it their own thing. The ones who don't have enough talent to do that can still make a good decoy that they can use and get a lot of pleasure out of. It doesn't have to be something that's going to sell for $50,000 40 years down the road.

Katie Burke: Could be just something that makes a duck come in.

Grayson Cheeser: $50,000 40 years down the road might not be worth over $25,000 now. It might not be worth anything. But at any rate, they've got to develop themselves. And if they have it in them, they can do it. If they don't, they can still get pleasure out of carving and using them. And yes, it's a lot of pleasure.

Katie Burke: Well, thank you, Grayson, for doing this with me. You're sort of welcome. This was really fun. I really enjoyed it. Okay. All right. Thanks, Grayson, for coming on the show. Thank you to our producer, Chris Isaac, and thanks to you, our listeners, for supporting wetlands and waterfowl conservation.

Creators and Guests

Katie Burke
Ducks Unlimited Podcast Collectibles Host
Ep. 555 – Eastern Shore Hunting and Decoy Carving with Greyson Chesser