Donna Tavano: Whittle While You Work

I opened a tiny shop at our house on Main Street in Harwich Port this summer. I call it an itty bitty art boutique since it’s only 180 square feet. Due to my husband’s hip replacement and never-ending family visits, I’ve been open just three hours a week during the Wednesday night music strolls (also by chance or appointment, but most people don’t know that.) If a wandering curious or brave soul meanders down the driveway after seeing my sign, Eclectsia, over the door, and I’m home, they’re invited in.

Over the course of these two months, I have made the acquaintance of many, among them a girl from New Zealand engaged in Nalbinding, an old Viking craft, knitting with one bone needle and fingers; a girl who cleaned the bar at the Lincoln Lodge on Lower County Road when she was just 16 and too young to bartend; a Chicagoan who had to have one of my hand-painted birdhouses and planned to stuff all her underwear and socks into it so it would fit in her suitcase on the flight home; and numerous neighbors we never knew we had.

I’ve made just about everything in the shop – jewelry, needle felted and mohair animals, painted rocks, watercolors, acrylics and oils, etc. I have loved to create stuff from bits and pieces of nothing since I was old enough to grasp scissors and wield a paste brush. My creations usually found their way into homes of family and friends as gifts, to fundraisers for worthy causes and a few, of which I am most fond, reside with me still. Now retired and living amidst a sea of summer foot traffic, I decided to take my guilty pleasures to a higher level – for sale, hoping to keep myself in paint and art supplies.

I spend my days sewing, painting or searching out scavenged wood and rocks that call my name. Recently I got the itch to start woodcarving. Immediately, a name came to me: Elmer Crowell, renowned Harwich native and decoy/bird carver whose works have fetched a million dollars and whose original workshop was rebuilt beside Brooks Academy Museum. When I was little, a Canadian uncle gave me the gift of a decoy he had carved. I loved that duck and played with it until its head broke off. I shudder to think of what it might have been worth had I not dragged it about on that rope for years.

Back in the early '70s, in my 20s, I cleaned houses. One home I took care of had a collection of dozens of small carved ducks and birds. I was told an old Harwichian, Elmer Crowell, had carved them and to be careful I didn’t break any. They were nicely made, but a pain in the petute to dust, which is probably why I remember them, and why they paid me to dust the creatures. I didn’t think much more about them until years later when newspapers reported record prices for carved wooden decoys made by none other than Harwich’s Elmer Crowell, born in 1862.

He had worked for rich people who like to hunt. He was involved in gunning for them, which meant he raised ducks and would release them so his ducks could lure other ducks close when they returned home so rich people could shoot them. For many reasons, this was outlawed in 1918, and Elmer, who clearly possessed a latent talent and a superior knowledge of shore birds, began carving wooden waterfowl. His earlier wealthy patrons began commissioning his work, his renderings so precise as to be almost indistinguishable from the actual birds. Among his admirers were the DuPonts, Henry Ford and W.H. Hoover. They ordered custom least peeps, willens, dowitches, turnstows and dust jacket plovers. Being a resourceful artist and Cape Codder, he utilized old umbrella ribs and putty as well as cedar and pine wood, easy to procure.

Working from a shed wing of a barn on Orleans Road in East Harwich, he made hundreds of birds, assisted later when his health failed by Cleon, his plumber son. He started selling miniatures after two French girls asked him to make some as presents. He named his workshop the Songless Aviary, but his estate was only worth $200 in 1952 when he died. As was the case with many artists and musicians, the true value of his work was not realized until decades later. In 2007, a pintail drake and a Canada goose by Crowell each sold for $1.13 million. It is said that author Joe Lincoln modeled a character, Queer Judson, after him. He is considered the father of bird carving. Not bad for a humble guy from Harwich, eh?

So for all you creative types out there, revel in the fact that for natives or washashores, the Cape has always been a fertile breeding ground and haven for artists and craftspeople. Most of us will never receive the accolades eventually bestowed upon Elmer, but as those plying brush, knife or pen know, the joy of creation is its own reward. When you get a chance, go visit the re-erected Elmer Crowell workshop at Brooks Academy beside the Farmers Market on Sisson Road. It might even encourage you, like Elmer, to whittle as you work.