The Northern Michigan JournalPREVIOUSNEXT

Jack Teegarden
by Mike Modrzynski
Alpena News Features Writer

He's a bit of a preservationist, an outdoorsman, and a skilled wood carver with a passionate desire to perpetuate the working art of early North American life.

"I don't create decoys or totem poles simply to create a product to sell, but to create something that will represent in its truest sense, the working artistry of North American folk art," Jack Teegarden said as he described his work. "I don't care to get into the feathered decoy art arena, but prefer to remain in the arena of the folk art decoy, the working man's decoy. These works are lost in the race to create perfect replicas of the ducks and geese we have around us today, not to be functional as the folk artist saw his work."

Teegarden works from a tiny cluttered two-room studio in a cabin south of Atlanta, teaching, writing, and, of course, carving his "working blocks." His is an approach seldom taught, but long sought after by serious collectors and students of the art and the lore of early American waterfowling.

"If someone looks at my decoys, they see a return to a time long since lost, a time when folk art was in vogue ... a simpler time," Teegarden said. "My goal is to capture the character without using elaborate detail to compensate for any lack of talent in the hands of the carver. The beauty in these decoys was in their simplicity and function, not their detail."

Teegarden said he likes to compare his decoys to a line from his favorite radio show host, Garrison Keeler..."A town that time forgot and decades can't improve on..." He insists that his decoys follow that tale, being an art that was forgotten decades ago, and is still timeless.

He has had more than 1,000 students in his carving classes, and says he can see a little of himself in each of the finished projects the students produce. He not only teaches and carves, but has begun a series of carving books to create the perfect tool to perpetuate the craft of creating decoys as they were made in the early era of waterfowling ... simple and functional.

He began carving after reading an article in a national outdoors magazine that described how to "carve your own decoys from fenceposts," a point he said the magazine failed to include in the directions was how easy it was for an "experienced" carver, not a beginner like himself.

"I never worked so hard, to accomplish so little, that turned out so badly, after taking so long," Teegarden said. "I whittled away at that fencepost block, first on one side and then the other, never realizing that you have to carve both sides as you go. By the time I got that decoy symmetrical I had almost created a miniature!"

He added, "I would imagine that even brain surgery isn't so tough, once you figure out where to start!"

Teegarden teaches carving at his studio on occasion, but has become part of a new setting for his love of North American folk art, the Hartley Outdoor Education Center in St. Charles. His classes there have attracted dozens of new students, most interested in carving, of all things, totem poles. The renewed interest in the totem poles has replaced the decoy carving classes, a fact that he claims is cyclic rather than a lack of desire to learn about decoys.

"The crest of the wave of buyers of classic folk art decoys, and even the more intricate decoys, has passed, and the desire to carve and work on totem poles is at about the point where duck decoys was 25 years ago," Teegarden said. "Why? I don't know, but I can tell you that the interest in creating something that tells the story of one's self has hit a strong chord with carving students. Those who still want to learn to carve birds are concentrating on loons, geese, herons ... the specialty non-game birds."

He admits that the teaching aspect of his art is fast taking over the time he has to devote to carving his own decoys, an aspect of his life that doesn't seem too disappointing to him.

"I enjoy the teaching so much; being able to bring out the talents and skills people have had hidden in themselves all along," he said. "In every student there is a point where I can't leave them alone, but after 1,000 students we are still looking for our first failure. I teach my students to please themselves, create a work they will be pleased with, not something the teacher will be pleased with ... I'm teaching them to start, not just to respond."

Teegarden admits he has finally reached middle age, the "time in one's life when we start saving all sorts of things in little glass jars!" His hero? The unlikely figure of Red Green, the popular, and slightly off-beat hero of the Red Green Show airing on PBS.

"I sort of see in myself a little of Red Green, particularly since he hits on all the values of us middle-aged guys," Teegarden said. "Simplicity, function and form that fits the need ... beauty is just extra!"

His modest claims of his work are accented by the appreciation of serious collectors of the folk art he creates, and highlighted by the fact that much of his work has found its way into collections all around the world. His carvings and other works can be found in private collections in Europe, Canada, South America and even Africa.

For more information on Teegarden's classes or availability of his artwork, call him at (989) 785-2459 or visit his web site. His studio is located 10 miles south of Atlanta, just off M-33 on Hunters Home Road.

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