A. Elmer Crowell


of East Harwich, on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, was a prolific and talented early twentieth century carver of wildfowl decoys, including shorebirds, ducks, brant (or wild geese), and geese. He died at 90 following an illustrious career that lasted until rheumatism forced him to retire in 1944. An artist of superb carving and paintingability, Crowell excelled in subtle feathering and coloration. He most often used split swamp cedar for the solid bodies, and pine for decoys’ heads. Crowell’s talentswere recognized at auction in January 2003, at Christie’s in New York City, when his pintail drake decoy, with an elegant, turned head and crossed-wing carving, soldfor $801,500. The price set a world record for American waterfowl decoys.Dealer and author Adele Earnest (1901–1993) described Crowell as a man who was “round, ruddyfaced, with twinkling blue eyes, who loved to sit with his hands folded across his plump stomach, telling tales of the time when he was young, skinny, and a crack shot.”He began duck hunting and decoy carving at age ten. His boyhood decoys were crude and unimaginative, from a period when wildfowl game was plentiful andsophisticated carving and painting techniques were unnecessary. An article in the
Cape Cod Compass
in 1951 reported that Crowell managed the Wenham Lakehunting camp of Dr. John C.Phillips, who was Crowell’s first decoy customer. Crowell’s studio is described as a “humble little wooden shed,” where he used whitecedar exclusively for his carvings. The cedar was cut in winter when the sap is dry, and then cured under cover for three to four years before use. Crowell told a journalist he applied two prime coats of paint in thin colors to all his birds, and that the markings were applied four to five times. Historian William F.Mackey Jr. notesthat Crowell also used pine for his solid body carvings of one piece construction, and faults him for a selection and drying process that failed often, at times producingdecoys plagued by cracks and checks.Crowell’s painting techniques, once fully developed, suggest soft, deep feathers. His shorebird decoys are highly prized, and some connoisseurs believe them to behis best wildfowl carvings. Adele Ernest identifies Crowell as a devoted ornithologist, and she opined that his shorebirds were as distinguished and as lovingly andnaturally interpreted as Audubon prints. The primary characteristics of Crowell’s shorebird decoys are the separation of wingtips from the tail and a dark brushwork through the eyes.
See also
Decoys, Wildfowl; Adele Earnest.
Earnest, Adele.
Folk Art in America: A Personal View.
Exton, Pa., 1984. ——.
The Art of the Decoy.
New York, 1965.Engers, Joe, ed.
The Great Book of Wildfowl Decoys.
New York, 2001.Mackey, William F.Jr.
American Bird Decoys.
New York, 1965.