Jim Burcio, 57, is sitting on a shop stool with a block of wood in his hand. He appears to be tall. He is slender, with salt-and-pepper hair and a ruddy, clean-shaven face. He's wearing a brown, camouflage shirt over a gray T-shirt, blue jeans, and tennis shoes. Burcio is busy about his work.
He carves decoys -- mostly bird decoys as in the 5 a.m. shot of whiskey, bird blinds, bird dogs, orange vests, and guns kind of decoys. I wanted to know how it started.
"Several things came together at once," Burcio says. "I was majoring in biology up in Humboldt [State University]. I had an uncle who was a taxidermist. I'd taken four years of mechanical drawing in high school. And then I bumped into a book that showed a modern, contemporary hunting decoy. It sparked something in me. I started carving in the early '70s.
"A lot of people don't realize it, but it's an original American art form. Decoy carving comes from no other continent, no other culture except North America. They found decoys in the Lovelock Cave in Nevada. They were dated out at 1000 A.D.
"What kinds of wood do you use?"
"It's regional. Out on the West Coast you'd use redwood or sugar pine. If you're making something fancier you might use basswood. Down South they use tupelo. Back East they might use white cedar."
I wouldn't recognized a tupelo if it walked up to me and demanded food. "How many decoys do you think you've carved?"
"I'm getting close to 1000."
"And how long does it take to carve one?"
"It can take anywhere from 15 hours for a fairly smooth project to...I've spent as much as 75 hours."
Somebody somewhere has spent 500 hours carving a bird decoy. "What's a complicated carving as opposed to a smooth carving?"
"Depends on what level you want to take this to. If you want a rustic, artistic kind of thing it's fairly simple. If you want something where every feather is carved and painted and you're trying to match the live bird, if you want to go that far, there are people who carve that far."
I look at the block of wood in his hands, ask, "What's up with this guy?"
"I'm trying to carve to the round, get rid of any corners."
"You're doing it out of your head?"
"At this point. Once I've carved this to the round, I'll take a couple steps back and my eyes will pick up harmony or my eyes will pick up discord. If they pick up discord then I'll find out where it is and fix it. Sometimes I got a problem and I know I'm not going to be able to fix it right then, but I know when I get to that area I'll fix it."
"Can you change birds mid-stream?"
"You don't want to change species, but you can change attitude. Like, if I get halfway through this project and I want to do something different with the head -- maybe I want the head to be forward like he's leaning into the wave -- I can change that. Right now, his head is kind of mid-range, floating on the water, a no-problems position.
"You can do a lot of different things. For instance," Burcio points to a decoy on a nearby table, "this Bonaparte [Bonaparte's Gull] has a little bit of attitude. Bonapartes get noisy. He'll get his tail up and he'll throw his head up and he'll give you a little what for, so you try to carve that. This bird," pointing to an unpainted decoy, "is a ruddy duck. The thing about ruddy ducks is they're small, they're round, and they've got short bills. So, when you first start carving, you're worried about all the measurements and all the this and all the that. And that's okay; you've got to get through that part. But, when you get to 35 years carving, you're carving an attitude. You're carving pudgy. Ruddy ducks are short and round, so I made it shorter. His bill is short and wide; I made it wider. His head is dipped, I made it scrunch down even more. I'm carving the character of a ruddy duck."
Yeah, I can see it. "How hard is it to paint a decoy?"
"Painting is extremely difficult. You can be a good carver in about three or four years, if you go at it pretty hard. Twenty-five years from now, you'll still be learning tricks about painting."
"So, some people are great carvers and lousy painters?"
"You got it."
"Painting separates the men from the boys?"
"Pretty much. The guys who are knowledgeable about paint, we call them artists. The other guys, they've got a hobby."
Pacific Southwest Wildlife Arts is hosting their 34th California Open featuring carved decoys at Balboa Park on February 24 & 25. Go to www.pswa.net or call Mike Dowell at 760-945-8442 for particulars.