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January 12, 2015

Common Loon Gunning Decoy by Laurie McNeil

Filed under: What's New — Lori Williamson @ 10:40 am

Photo: Jeff Smith, Allen & Marshall Auctioneers

“Phenom” is a well-worn idiom in the creative arts, but it’s an apropos expression of Laurie McNeil’s extraordinary talent.  Starting with a sheet-rock knife and no formal training, the Minneapolis native burst onto the scene in 1985 and within a year went from virtual obscurity to international best-in-show winner.  Most of McNeil’s decoys, which take about 500 hours for a life-sized work, are crafted from a block of tupelo, a wood favored by decoy carvers for its softness and buoyancy.  A cardboard template is used to trace an outline onto the wood, which is then cut out with a band saw.   Rotary tools and wood-burning pens are then used to further define the decoy and create fine details like feathers.

Video: Common Loon Decoy from Start to Finish – Less Than Two Minutes (courtesy: Laurie McNeil)

A critical step in the creative process is weighting the figure so it floats – a judging requirement in gunning decoy competition and a necessity for hunting use (a rarity since McNeil’s decoys often sell for thousands of dollars).  This exquisite specimen, McNeil’s first life-size rendition of Minnesota’s state bird, was executed in 1987 and proved an especially challenging figure to self-right.  Opting to forgo a keel, McNeil hollowed the body and head and used lead weights for ballast.  Uncertain of the efficacy of her engineering, McNeil concealed a rueful message inside the bird’s head which reads, “If you are reading this note, something serious has happened to my Loon!” Miraculously, the decoy took to water like the proverbial duck and won best-in-show that year at the prestigious Pacific Southwest Wildlife Arts California Open. McNeil became the first woman to win the open-class competition at that event, a singular honor which garnered the admiration of wildfowl carvers and collectors nationwide.

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