Saying that hunters and fishermen appreciate both the beauty of nature and the creatures they harvest isn’t necessarily a contradiction. It’s quite common, especially here on the northshore, where we are surrounded by some of the most picturesque and productive marshes in the world.
Wildlife artist Rock Zeringue has combined a passion for hunting with his passion for meticulous woodworking in his award-winning waterfowl carvings. What’s astonishing is that many of his creations—dead ringers, if you will, for sky-borne pintails, mallards and poule d’eau—wind up floating in the water, beckoning their live-action counterparts to come on down, join the party—and be blasted. (For the uninitiated, poule d’eau is the Louisiana name for the American coot, and it’s a favorite of the Cajun gumbo pot.)
At first glance, they may seem more suited for the mantelpiece than the marsh. In fact, much of his work is destined for a treasured spot in a collector’s nook. But as proud as he is of his decorative birds, he’s equally as happy with the birds—“gunning birds,” as he calls them—that are put to work as decoys in the area’s duck ponds.
It’s really how he got his start. Rock, a retired New Orleans Public Service shift supervisor, carved his first bird more than 40 years ago. “I used to help an old man who liked to duck hunt,” he recalls. “I put out the decoys for him and stuff like that. There weren’t a lot of retrieving dogs back then, so I was basically his retriever.
“He was a distributor of plastic decoys in Louisiana for the Victor Majestic Decoy and Trap Co., and his company did not build poule d’eau, which I felt was really an essential bird for decoy rigs. I got a hold of some balsa wood and made some poule d’eau decoys. That’s how I got started.”
Rock became an avid hunter himself and, as it turned out, liked his own work. “I liked hunting over something that I made. That’s when I began carving blue-wing teal. From there, I just started carving birds now and then.”
Later, he turned pro. “In the 1970s, a fellow said he wanted to buy a few, and it went from there,” Rock remembers. He began entering his work in various shows and winning awards.
Life in the Marsh
Rock and his wife, Sheila, lived most of their lives in Kenner, but enjoyed a fishing camp in the Rigolets area for many years. About 30 years ago, they decided to build a home on some land Rock owned just across the state line in Pearlington, Miss. “We weren’t happy with the situation in Kenner,” Rock says. One day, he asked himself, “‘So what if I build a house?’ and stupid me says, ‘Oh yeah! What a good idea!’”
For five years, Rock applied his penchant for meticulous craftsmanship to building the home. “Sheila and I drove every nail in this house. I’d go to the lumber yard, buy the lumber and bring it home to Kenner. Then I’d pre-fab what I could, bring it out to Pearlington and put it up.”
They enjoy a nice compound at the end of a canal that leads into the marsh surrounding the East Pearl River. It’s easy access to bird watching and fishing and also to Rock’s raw materials.
For his waterfowl carvings, Rock relies on two types of wood, both of which he can usually find within a boat ride of his home. “I primarily use cypress root and tupelo gum. Cypress root, I pick up on the East and West Pearl Rivers every few months. When we have a rise in the water, it usually uproots cypress trees. I’ll patrol the river until I see a toppled-over cypress tree, and then I’ll cut the roots from it. That’s actually underground; you usually can’t get to it unless the tree has been toppled over.”
Rock says the tupelo gum tree grows along with the cypress in the swamp. “It has a swollen butt at the bottom, and I only use the first three feet of the butt. It’s relatively light, and that’s what carvers look for.” He’ll often look for tupelo as it’s being cut and says, “Usually, they don’t use that swollen part, so they either cut it above that in the swamp, or if you talk them into it, they’ll cut it low for you and cut off the butt before they load it up.”
Once he’s gathered his raw materials, Rock begins by cutting the wood into manageably-sized blocks and rough-cutting the pieces into bird-like shapes with a band saw after drawing a pattern for the top and sides of the bird on the block. Then the hand work begins. “I’ll start rounding it with a draw knife and spoke shavers. I use a pocket knife for more detail and then sand it,” Rock says. “From there, I seal it, prime it and then start painting. I generally use artists’ oils to paint, but I’ve used almost anything.”
Rock’s decoys are a bit more detailed and lifelike than you’d expect. It’s OK for him to take some license with them that he wouldn’t take with finer-detailed reproductions that are destined for a collector’s display. “For example, the pintail has a long neck, so you can exaggerate the neck on the decoy.”
He actually makes three grades of birds, the gunning birds, what he calls “shelf birds” and decorative birds. The shelf birds are decorative, but not as detailed as the decorative birds. “The birds I know are going to be used as a decoy, I usually put a dowel through the head and neck, because the head has a tendency to break,” says Rock. “I’ll also put a skewer through the bill because they also have a tendency to break. The shelf birds aren’t reinforced and are painted with the same type of paint, but are painted a little bit finer. Of course, the decorative birds are painted with a lot of detail.”
This level of craftsmanship takes time; about two eight-hour days to rough a bird out and about the same time to paint. But, Rock notes, “You know, a lot of people can carve them faster, and a lot of people can paint them faster, but I really enjoy doing them.”
Besides the band saw, chop saw, planer, vices and other tools of the woodcarver’s trade, there were two things that almost seemed out of place in Rock’s workshop: a board on an artist’s easel and a sideboard. They weren’t out of place at all, he explained, but extensions of Rock’s primary interests, woodworking and waterfowl. The board on the easel was in the beginning stages of becoming a beautiful hunting painting. “I’ve done about 20 paintings so far,” Rock says. His works are in the style of George Viavant, a local artist whose work often depicted harvested wild game, usually hanging by a string. Viavant died in 1925; his original watercolors sell for tens of thousands of dollars. Rock did his first painting on a dare.
“I have a really good customer who’s fairly wealthy. He said, ‘Do a Viavant for me. I’ll buy it. If I like it, I’ll put it in my big house in Natchez. If I don’t, I’ll put it in the bathroom of my fish camp.’” Of course, Rock’s client liked it. “It’s now the centerpiece of his home in Natchez.”
Making a hanging dead duck come to life is a challenge for Rock, but in the end, it parallels the satisfaction he gets from completing a carved bird. “It’s kind of like doing a portrait of someone. Usually, my clients are people who know birds really well. To do something like that, a hanging bird still life, I focus constantly on roundness, to get the dimensionality of it. It takes about two and a half weeks just drawing it. Then I start painting and keep lightening or darkening things to get where I am comfortable.”
The stately sideboard in his workshop was a project he began as a gift for his wife. While the rich color of the wood appears to be a finish or stain applied to it, it’s actually the natural color of the sinker cypress used in its construction, which, it turns out, was a tricky business.
“Cypress has a tendency to move, so you have to build it in panels so it can expand and contract. When you bring it into someone’s house, the air conditioner hits it, and it starts to contract. Cypress is also soft, so I glue a piece of mahogany in here for the stringers to run on so they won’t wear out. The stringers themselves are teak; teak is a self-lubricating wood, so the drawers slide evenly.”
A couple of things become obvious when Rock talks about his work, whether it’s his bird carvings, his paintings or furniture: he loves what he does and takes pride in a job well done.
While he doesn’t participate in too many shows, his work was part of a retrospective at the Historic New Orleans Collection in 2008 titled Birds of a Feather: Wildfowl Carving in Southeast Louisiana.
“When I put a knife to something, I want it to come out the best it possibly can. I want it to be better than the last one I did. I keep trying to do that. A lot of my customers like to hunt over them, so I build those birds a little more sturdy than most. It gives me a lot of pride when someone can hunt over my birds for six years and they’ll still be in good shape.”
His clients get more than just birds to hunt over—they’re getting works of art that he’s sure will stand the test of time. Hand-carved decoys are in great demand, especially the antiques. “Basically, after a bird’s 100 years old—I’m hoping some of my birds are around for that long—it’s nothing for one to auction off for $17,000, and some will auction off for a lot more than that.”
It’s also the case with the home he and Sheila took so long to build. “It’s a good feeling to know you built this place yourself. And it was a real good feeling when we came back from Katrina and this was still standing just as strong as ever.”
As for the hunt, Rock’s not as game as he used to be for the trip out to place decoys in the marsh at a chilly 3 o’clock in the morning. Besides, he’s really gotten to like the birds too much.
“I’ll go hunting, but I seldom shoot anything. To me, the most important part is after the hunt. It’s the best time. You can put your gun away and watch the birds and their habits. It’s marvelous to watch these creatures. You love them and don’t want to shoot them anymore.”
Rock Zeringue’s work is available at The Crabnet in New Orleans.Filed under: Arts, Front Page Feature, Hobbies, July-August 2012, Northshore Notables