By Annette Hinkle
Virtually everyone in Sag Harbor knows, at least by sight, the unassuming shop of Robert Hand Sr. It sits at Madison Street and Jermain Avenue on one of the village’s busiest corners along the well-worn path between Pierson High School and Mashashimuet Park.
Though it’s a local landmark in more ways than one, most people have probably never even taken the time to duck their heads into the shop.
And that’s a shame … because “duck” is the operative word here.
For more than 35 years, the space has served as Bob Hand Sr.’s carving studio and in the well-worn workshop, he has created a staggering array of life-like and meticulously carved duck decoys and songbirds over the years.
It’s an obsession that began early for him.
“I love birds. When I was seven or eight I could identify all the songbirds,” says Hand Sr., a Bridgehampton native and self-taught carver who began at age 15 by making duck decoys. “I didn’t learn from anyone. I saw some decorative work and said ‘I can do that.’”
And do that he has. Hand Sr. has been carving birds full-time since the 1970s and last Saturday, he was at work on his newest piece — a pileated woodpecker — the first he’s ever made.
Carving may be America’s oldest folk art and a skill Hand Sr. passed down to his son, Robert Hand Jr., who has become a legendary carver in his own right. Hand Jr. recalls making his first piece — a cork black duck — in the mid-1970s at the age of 9.
These days, pieces by both father and son are veritable works of art and highly sought after in the world of bird carving, a distinctly Americana art form in which quality pieces can garner great attention (and prices) from collectors.
This Saturday, September 22 and again on September 29, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., both Hands will be demonstrating and discussing decoy carving at the Bridgehampton Historical Society’s Archives Building.
Though Hand Jr., a graduate of Pierson High School, now lives in New Jersey, he still comes out to Sag Harbor about once a month to work in the studio alongside his dad. The two even collaborate on some pieces. Like his father, he was once a full-time carver, but these days, Hand Jr. who has a wife and two daughters, must fit in his bird work around his day job in Manhattan. At home in Jersey City, he’s up and in his art studio by 5:30 a.m. each morning before heading off to work.
And these days, Hand Sr. and Hand Jr. carve a full range of birds — not just meticulously designed, carved and painted ducks and shorebirds, but hummingbirds, songbirds and birds of prey, like owls.
They sell their birds primarily by word of mouth, though they have been featured in many newspaper and magazine stories over the years — including in a recent piece by the Wall Street Journal.
And they have as much work as they can handle.
“I’m busier now than I’ve ever been. My owls I sell as fast as I make them,” says Hand Sr. who coyly adds that many celebrities have come through his door over the years. Though he’s not naming names.
“I’m not marketing and his only marketing is this shop,” adds Hand Jr. “The reputation is word of mouth. Some birds I have sold are now in California, Europe and South Africa.”
“If I were carving full time I would push him more,” adds Hand Jr. referring to his father. “I do it for the love of it. I have 15 to 20 pieces in progress, some may never get finished. It’s a hobby for me. I have a waiting list of things people want. I’m not marketing so it’s through friends. It’s a tough balance. It’s hard when people start wanting it. You want to get it out there.”
And there are many people out there who want bird carvings. While hunting has largely vanished as a way of life — at least here on the East End where rampant development and the emergence of political correctness have hastened its demise — the demand for decoys and other bird carvings has only grown since the 1970s.
“There was a big boom in the hobby and competition market then,” notes Hand Jr. “That’s when collectors first started paying big prices for antique birds at auctions.”
Today, the Hands compete (and generally win) at regional and national carving competitions around the country, though Hand Sr. notes there are far fewer carvers out there these days.
“Not even 1 percent of people carving back then are still around. They all died,” says Hand Sr. who has gotten grants to teach decoy carving.
The newest decoy and bird collectors tend to be younger people who consider themselves the environmentalists.
“We had a couple and their kids come in one weekend,” says Hand Jr. “They had rented in Noyac, they loved the birds and wanted to buy something to remember Sag Harbor.”
“He’s a piece of local history” he adds, referring to his father. “It’s not that they’re avid birders, but a lot of young professionals are interested in nature and the environment.”
“They’re the people who have taken up bird watching,” adds Hand Sr. “This is a good place for it.”
For Hand Jr., another contributing factor to the popularity of the bird carvings is the desire to take home a handcrafted piece of art in this age of mass-produced plastics and polymers.
“People are looking more for things where they can see the work,” he says. “It’s like artisanal baking or heirloom tomatoes.”
There are a lot of things to consider in carving a bird by hand — and both Hands are meticulous in getting the details right — from size and shape to pose and color. While the Internet is helpful, a picture on a screen generally isn’t accurate enough to base a carving on — especially if it’s a bird that is unfamiliar to a carver. Because he lives near Manhattan, Hand Jr. has access to facilities with bird specimens to fill in the important details.
“I’m doing a pygmy kingfisher right now — it lives in South Africa,” says Hand Jr. “I’m lucky to have the ability to study university skin collections. If I haven’t seen it in the exact size and scale, I won’t carve it. It’s too much investment.”
While Hand Sr. is totally self-taught, Hand Jr. studied painting and drawing and also worked as a professional artist with gallery representation. He notes his artistic training validated many of the things he and his father had come to understand instinctually about their art simply through years of doing it.
“The classical training gave me words for things I already know,” explains Hand Jr. “When you’re self-taught, you do know how to get the results you want. But maybe not the words for it.”
Though they sometimes work collaboratively, when it comes to painting their birds, father and son take distinctly different paths.
“I love the acrylics – I get that translucent look and I can see the under painting,” says Hand Sr. “I like to tint in thin washes.”
“I like the directness of oils and the way it looks when it dries,” counters Hand Jr. “Oil suspends pigment and has a depth when it’s finished. It also has an extended blending time and I like the way it handles.”
Getting the color of the feathers just right is the final step in creating a realistic bird.
“That’s where my art training really comes into it — it’s observational,” says Jr. “Instead of saying ‘that’s red,’ maybe it’s not. It might be a little brownish. I’m not afraid to use color mixes I was afraid of 20 years ago.”
“That’s what separates the men from the boys,” says Hand Sr. looking up from his workbench with a sly grin.
Decoy carving demonstrations by Robert Hand Sr. and his son Robert Hand Jr. will take place Saturday, September 22 and 29 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Bridgehampton Historical Society’s Archives Building, 2539-A Montauk Highway, Bridgehampton. The presentations are part of the Bridgehampton Historical Society’s Heritage Celebration, and admission is free. For more information, call 537-1088.