Anne Stinson November 2006
November’s sky is chill and drear,
November’s leaf is red and sear.
So wrote Sir Walter Scott almost two centuries ago. What a grouch. What a pity. He never had the pleasure of being in Easton during the mid-November extravaganza, the Waterfowl Festival. It’s anything but drear.
In fact, it’s become such a joyous celebration, some waggish visitors refer to it as the Art Ducko Festival. It appeals to everybody. It’s equal parts of hoity-toity and down-home.
Planned to run the second weekend of November, this combination art exhibit and town party celebrates the return of migratory waterfowl. Canada geese are the most spectacular, but local creeks, coves and ponds come alive with thousands of birds from as far away as Alaska’s north slope where tundra swans have summered, the pothole country of the Canadian prairie breeding grounds for ducks and the Upper Hudson Bay, where the majestic geese fly south to Chesapeake Bay country to winter.
The birds are not the only migrants. Artists of every imaginable medium travel as many miles and more to be in Easton, the center of it all. Now in its 36th year, the Festival began modestly. Major exhibits showcased decoys, both antique and modern, and bird paintings. As an old-timer recalled, “If it didn’t have wings and feathers, we wouldn’t hang it.”
The emphasis is still on migratory birds, a fact evident in the logo of the Festival, a flying Canada goose in a circle. The big bird is stenciled on sidewalks, emblazoned on jackets and caps and as ubiquitous as the vees of geese overhead that make necks crane skyward on Easton streets to revel in the miracle.
The Festival isn’t exclusively focused on waterfowl any more, and hasn’t been for many years. The combination of a perfectly beautiful small town and the work of 500 acclaimed wildlife artists is a magnet for lovers of nature, the sporting world and art patrons. Appreciative crowds come like bees to flowers – the more visitors, the more exhibitors until the town of Easton is filled to capacity. Every exhibit space is bespoken and at 20,000 visitors, Easton is full to overflowing.
The utterly amazing fact about it all is that this fabulous art show, elegant and polished, with lots of glitz and glam, is created anew every year by a crowd of amateurs. A workforce of 1,500 volunteers plans the exhibits, sets up tables for carvings and panels for hanging flat art, decorates spaces with lavish greenery, fall flowers and tawny fronds of autumnal grasses, and arranges for a continuous loop of buses to connect galleries and demonstrations from one side of town to the other.
And each year one can find something new, something a bit more interesting. The Festival is like Paris – the more it changes, the more it stays the same.
As always, waterfowl decoys are prominent in the scheme of things. The great exhibit room at the old armory, now Waterfowl Festival headquarters, is a revelation to visitors unaware of the evolution in decoy styles. A generation ago, decoys were no-frills, often homemade crude carvings with a strictly utilitarian function. Inevitably, some of the early carvers developed a native talent for the distinctive forms of birds they wanted to attract. They became more sophisticated in the accuracy of their painting and were soon recognized as masters. Individual carvers and regional schools attracted collectors.
Many of those same collectors come to the Festival for a specific purpose – to add to their hoard of classic decoys at the Saturday auction.
Decoys have long since graduated from folk art to fine art painted sculptures in wood. It’s not unusual for visitors to touch the carvings at the Armory, or its companion gallery at the VFW hall, to see if the feathers are real or painted. Others make a point of interest at Glenwood Elementary School, where Working Artists in several genres demonstrate the how-to and what-with of their field of expertise. More than a few carving exhibitors had their interest originally piqued by watching these artists making it all look easy and fun.
Two venues for flat art – paintings of every size and medium – can only be described as dazzling. There are landscapes. There are still lifes. There are portraits of birds and mountain lions and elephants and all the big cats. There are scenes of big game of the American West and the African veldt. There are sporting scenes with geese or pheasants rising from a snowy field or a white-tail deer with its antlers silhouetted against an autumn sky. There are maritime paintings of workboats and pleasure boats. There are tropical birds and game birds and backyard birds. The Gold Room at the Tidewater Inn and the handsome space at the Elks Club are transformed into temporary museums for watercolors, acrylics, oils, scratchboards, pencil and pen drawings, both as originals and/or prints.
Not tired yet? Take a break at any of the food vendors on the streets or at Easton’s exciting restaurant scene, but don’t miss the sculpture exhibits at Christ Church hall (two floors) or upstairs at the Mayor and Council building. The church lawn holds an overflow of big muscular bronzes suitable for outdoor display as well as an indoor space. Subject matter runs the gamut. Expect to see frolicking bronze children near a life-size timid doe and watchful buck, or a great blue heron balanced on one leg.
The in-the-round work is simply astonishing. Some of it is crafted in bronze, both with and without patinas, some is carved of stone, some from cut and welded steel, some carved into plexiglass. The variety is amazing.
On a less flamboyant note, the exhibit of photographs at the Historical Society Auditorium draws the cream of outdoor photographers, a select group whose magic with the camera results in art prints that are not only suitable for framing, they should be framed and hung in a place of honor. Not only that, they’re affordable.
Also in a price range that won’t break the bank are the two gift shops (indoor and outdoor) at Easton Middle School where there’s – well, everything. The waterfowl motif is prominent but not overwhelming. Yes, you can find stained glass, wall plaques, the makin’s for wannabe carvers with how-to books, blocks of wood and proper knives. Sometimes there are handsome wrought iron fireplace tools; sometimes there are papier mache Santas crafted on empty toilet paper rolls. I’m not making this up. Choices run from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Over at the high school there’s another self-contained world of Festival attractions. One huge room is devoted to the Buy, Sell & Swap Shop (they get all bent out of shape if you compare it to a flea market, so I wouldn’t dare to), where collectors like to browse while waiting for the big Saturday auction with big prices. BS&S can be counted on to have a high noise level, since finding the perfect duck, goose, turkey or whatever call requires that every vendor’s wares be demonstrated. It’s also a fun place to shop for finished decoys, painted or unpainted, half-finished decoys that need some TLC, knives, sometimes sporting books or old paintings, a glorious mixture of just what you needed but didn’t realize it until you saw it.
And speaking of raucous noises, the music you may hear coming from the auditorium is more honking and quacking from contestants vying for the title of World Champion Goose Caller or a qualifier for the annual Duck Calling Championship in Stuttgart, Arkansas. What with classes for juniors and classes for seniors and goose calling and duck calling categories, it’s a fairly lengthy process. That’s why it’s spread over two days.
One of the best kept secrets is tucked down the hall and around the corner. It’s the exhibit with the security guard – yeah, the guy with a real gun – keeping an eye on antique treasures relating to the pursuit of waterfowl for more than a century. Most items and groups of items are from the carefully assembled collections in private hands. These wonderful decoys are beyond priceless. My personal favorites are the Long Island shorebird decoys, as elegant on their single leg dowel as a ballerina. Look, but don’t touch.
While you’re at the high school, you might want to talk to the guys who can book you for a day of shooting from a blind or a kayak trip or who knows what.
But don’t get bogged down. If the kids get restless, steer them to the fly fishing demonstrations and the retrievers showing off their retrieving tricks at the ponds on the old Radcliffe place, now called Easton Village – it’s the first left past the Easton Parkway and St. Michaels Road traffic light headed out of town. Don’t drive, though; check the Festival map and ride the bus that goes directly to the ponds.
Tuckered out? Sit on somebody’s steps or on a sidewalk bench or at a cafe table or on a low brick wall and people-watch. There’ll be a steady stream of walkers because all the cars are parked in the free-parking lots for traffic-free streets in the heart of town. Exhibits are clustered so that free bus rides can connect the dots between the clusters. Notice that there’s not a frown in sight? Most of them have probably just come from the wine-tasting tent!
There are just happy people having a good time, walking their dogs and basking in the numero uno wildlife festival in the universe. No kidding. That’s the Waterfowl Festival. I hope to see you there.