Gary Starr: Avian artistry born and bred

In the Duxbury, Mass., home where Gary Starr grew up, avian artistry was a household affair. His father, George R. Starr, a doctor, lined the walls of Gary’s childhood abode with hundreds of intricately-carved decoy ducks, geese, loons and sandpipers that he had both collected and crafted himself. While his father’s appreciation for waterfowl stemmed from the practice of hunting itself, the beauty of the carved wooden decoys hunters used to lure their prey was what really grabbed young Gary.
“My father thought that hunting was fine and really enjoyed it, but he got intrigued by the carving and how to set up the decoys to create the environment to bring the birds in,” Starr recalled. “This is what I grew up seeing. As early as I can remember there were probably at least 1,000 duck decoys in the house.”
Now, as one of the most established carvers of decoy birds around, Starr practices the intricacies of the craft that his father honed during spare hours not spent on house calls and in surgeries.
Listening to Starr speak, it’s clear that much of his reverence for his craft is taken from the artistic vision of the elder carver. Once, Starr’s father brought home a decoy that he had purchased for $35 — a colossal sum, considering he was paid $1 by each patient who visited him at home and $1.25 for out-of-house calls. “My father had it under his coat and my mother asked him how much it was and it took him a week to tell her how much he spent on that particular bird,” Starr said. “After he died, that bird sold for $205,000. I don’t care about the money, but that showed that my father had something when it came to collecting, that he could pick up a bird and feel the artistry that went into it.”
Like his father, Starr himself wasn’t always a carver by trade. After a bachelor’s degree in hotel management at Cornell University, he eventually made his way to Middlebury College, where he worked for 20 years as director of food services, practicing his carving skills all the while. When both of his parents died of cancer within six weeks of each other in 1986, Starr felt that it was time for a change.
“I was turning 40 years old that winter, had two kids, and I just decided that this would be a good time to make a break and start my own business,” he said.
Starr began his own carving operation then and would work out of his basement for the next 12 years. Now, he runs Starr Decoys out of the three-floor studio behind his Weybridge home that includes specialized areas for painting, packing and shipping, and “reference,” where he consults old decoys crafted by his father for inspiration. Starr’s decoys are made from local basswood, obtained from Linden trees. He says that carving a single decoy can take as much as several weeks for more intricate designs or mere hours, in the case of small ornamental pieces, of which he produces a few thousand each year.
A case of glaucoma three years ago forced him to begin wearing a patch over his left eye, slowing his production for a short time. But Starr bounced back quickly and continues to produce decoys at a high rate. “Your body adjusts,” he said. “Everybody has problems, everybody has handicaps, and I’ve just sort of decided that this is not a handicap.”
There are two things that Starr says are crucial in crafting a realistic decoy bird. First, the decoy must be well-balanced and symmetrical, as Starr’s birds are created in the traditional style of hunting decoys meant to float on the surfaces of lakes and streams. Second, it’s vital that the bird’s eyes are correctly positioned. “Sometimes when you pick up a bird and it just doesn’t look right, it’s because the eyes are a bit off,” he said.
Starr adds lifelike quirks to his smaller decoys, often carving loons with heads tilted or beaks burrowed into their feathers, preening. Although the paint work on each decoy is incredibly complex and detailed, Starr has no training in painting and figured out how to best color his work through trial and error. He sells his decoys online and out of his studio; he says his cardinal decoy “by far” his best-seller.
While his father was primarily interested in the production and collection of decoys, Starr’s own avian interests span two worlds: the carving process that he learned as a child and the practice of bird watching, which he pursues with his wife, Karen. The couple has travelled to 37 countries (including Papua New Guinea, Mexico, Panama and Antarctica) and seen more than 4,300 bird species in their pursuit of different breeds of fascinating fowl. In August, they will visit the Iguazu Falls in Argentina and the Pantanal marshlands of Brazil before travelling north into the Amazon river basin.
“The nice thing is that we’ll be with a lot of people that are really dedicated birders,” Starr said. “But the great thing is we won’t just see birds, we’ll use birds as a vehicle to see everything that we can see.”
In the meantime, Starr can be found in his studio in Weybridge, where he says visitors are welcome to peruse his vast collection of “floating sculpture” by appointment or chance.
“I don’t have any signs on the road,” he said. “But if you’re driving by the driveway, if there’s a leather strap with a little cowbell on it, that means that I’m in the area.”
See his decoys online here, or at Gary Starr’s studio at 782 Weybridge Road (Route 23).

Share this story:

More News
US Probation Office Uncategorized

US Probation Office Request for Proposals

US Probation Office 2×1.5 062024 RFP

Middlebury American Legion Uncategorized

Middlebury American Legion Annual Meeting

Middlebury American Legion 062024 1×1.5 Annual Meeting

Sports Uncategorized

MAV girls’ lax nets two triumphs

The Mount Abraham-Vergennes cooperative girls’ lacrosse team moved over .500 with a pair o … (read more)

Share this story: