Michael A. Berg
2006 Florida Folk Heritage Award
For centuries, hunters hoping to put food on their tables have been making wooden birds to lure wildfowl close enough to make them easy targets. Michael Berg (Tallahassee) comes from five generations of duck decoy carvers. As a child in Indiana, his grandfather’s home was filled with decoys and Berg heard many family stories associated with the decoys. His maternal grandfather and great uncle worked as tool-and-die makers in Michigan, but during the Depression they supported their families by carving decoys for professional hunters and hunting clubs. After earning a degree in sociology, Berg started carving during a visit to his great-uncle. While he developed many of the skills on his own, he credits his grandfather as a source of inspiration and his great-uncle as a source of technical advice. Although he has gone on to pursue a career as a top administrator in Florida’s Department of Corrections in Tallahassee, a visit to his office--packed with decoys and hunting awards, makes it clear that his enduring passion is carving decoys.
Berg creates utilitarian decoys primarily from cork and basswood. Although few contemporary carvers use cork, he prefers to use the traditional materials of his forbears. Like them he also chooses simple tools: carving knives, a plane, files, and rasps. He creates the buoyant body from cork, forms the head from basswood, and carves tails and other embellishments from teak or mahogany. Berg uses rusted spark plugs as anchors for his decoys. He finishes his pieces with oil-based paints to endow them with color and texture. His pieces feature distinctive high eyebrows and shoulders that roll into the trunk of the duck’s body. Since his decoys are meant to be used, he often tests them in water before selling them. Berg reflects on the process, “There’s never a piece of wood or a piece of cork that carves the same. I learn something new on every decoy that helps me with the next piece.”
Berg draws upon his extensive experience hunting ducks and other creatures when he creates his decoys: “I hunted first. That’s probably why it wasn’t difficult for me to carve, because I’d handled so many ducks. I know how they feel. Your eyesight is one thing, but your hands are also your sight. You don’t look at something when you want to know."