"When I make a decoy," says Natalie Boyett, "it's almost like I'm making a decoy of a decoy. I'm not looking at a photograph or a model of the actual bird, but a model of a decoy."
Boyett became obsessed with duck decoys four years ago, while helping her grandmother clean a wealthy man's home in Little Rock, Arkansas. "There was one room that was filled with decoys--hundreds of them, from floor to ceiling," she says. "At first I didn't think they were that interesting--I thought of them as dead representations of birds. But then I noticed some old-fashioned, strange-looking ones on the bottom shelves. They were kind of like old antique footballs with weird, eerie, absent kind of eyes. I saw crooked stitch lines and realized they weren't made of wood but canvas. The heads were kind of misshapen; they were awkward, very awkward.
"That's why I love them so much. I see these stitched pieces put together, and I see evidence of the human hand--I see the human hand trying really hard to make this beautiful, living, perfect thing, and it always just kind of fails."
At the time Boyett was finishing up a year of postbaccalaureate studies at the School of the Art Institute and about to enter its MFA program. She made detailed drawings of the canvas ducks, and that night she sewed her own out of newspaper and took pictures of it "from every angle. It was like it was a child," she recalls.
Boyett, who has also been drawn to antique boxing gloves, snowshoes, and fish traps, started reading books by nature writers, listening to recordings of duck calls, and visiting decoy museums ("The best is the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum in Maryland"). She learned about mud ducks made by Native Americans, hollow decoys used to hide illegal kills, and triangular tip-up decoys, which look like a duck's rear end. She saw decoys made out of sheet metal and of photos pasted onto wood. She also talked to some hunters and learned their rituals--how they choose a spot, place 50 or more decoys in the proper locations, hide in the water, and wait for the ducks to come to them. "In a way any decoy is like a receptacle for guilt," she says. "Because the body of the bird eventually goes away. It dies and is eaten or thrown away. But the decoys are always there. They're objects of reverence, I think."
While working toward her MFA, which she earned in 1999, and during a yearlong mentorship program at Artemisia Gallery, Boyett made dozens of decoys out of canvas, wood, mud, and other materials. Her monochromatic birds are covered with wax "to make them more water-resistant and to harden the surface and to give them a bit of a gloss."
Some of her decoys incorporate bits of actual birds--there's one that's intentionally torn, with a shock of feathers protruding from the rip. Another recent decoy is made of mud, reeds, and bones. "I'm going to eat the duck that I boiled to get the bones from," says Boyett, a vegetarian. "I have to eat it because I just don't want to buy the duck and throw it all away for the bones. But I'm not looking forward to it."
Whenever Boyett is out she finds herself scanning the horizon for ducks and geese, and she's always scouring antique shops for canvas decoys (so far she's found one--a female mallard made in Forest Park around 1947). She's also been trying to find someone to take her hunting, though she says she probably couldn't shoot anything. "I don't want to impose on someone," she says. "If they wait all year to do this and hunting season comes around and some dork wants to come along and possibly judge them, I don't blame them for not wanting to take me.
"I'm extremely aware that the hunter that I represent in my images and monologues is very romanticized. I saw some hunting show on TV and they're so mean--they hoot and laugh when they shoot the animal. It disturbs me. It goes against my vision of this whole process."
Nineteen of Boyett's decoys will be on display through February 2 as part of a multimedia installation, "Birds to Have," which also includes taped monologues based on her interviews with hunters (and read by an actor), as well as recordings of geese, two-dimensional artworks, and a video projection of a film she made of ducks swimming near Montrose Point. Boyett will be at the free opening reception this Friday from 6 to 11 at Dupreau Gallery, 4229 N. Lincoln (773-528-6440).
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.