The 2017 Featured Carver is James Lewis of Harkers Island, NC, and the featured bird is a Barrow’s Goldeneye.
It should come as no surprise that Harkers Island native James Lewis knew how to pilot a boa long before he learned how to drive a car. After all, living off the waters of Core Sound was a family tradition for James, who can trace his ancestral roots back to Shackleford Banks, Stacy, Core Banks, and of course, Harkers Island.
Hailing from a long line of boat builders and fisherman, James grew up doing much of the same – fishing, shrimping, and clamming, all typical island activities.
Now he spends his days building boats with his father, Jamie Lewis, as part of the well known Lewis Boat, one of the last old-style boat builders that builds from the keel up by the “Rack of eye” method, one boat at a time. James’ uncle Houston, who was an integral part of the business, officially retired in 2016, and the family changed the name from Lewis Brothers Boatworks to Lewis Boats. Many of the Lewis-built custom vessels feature a flared bow, commonly called the “Carolina Flare,” an innovative design that was created by a cousin of the Lewis family many years ago and is now featured on sport fishing vessels around the world.
What may surprise you is that the quiet, unassuming manner of James Lewis hides a special talent other than boat building, namely decoy carving. Yes, he can build a beautiful 41-foot Sport Fisherman, but he can also carve and paint a magnificent bufflehead, brant, or teal. His awards are too numerous to list, but they include “Best of Shows” in competitions up and down the East Coast and in Michigan. James’ decorative decoys are a treat to see, with complex feather patterns painted in acrylics to create a wonderfully lifelike bird that is truly a work of art. His working decoys retain the same life-like quality with simpler paint, oil in this case, meant to endure the wear and tear of the hunting rig.
One could say the whole “decoy thing” runs in James’ blood since his great-grandfather, William “Billy” Hancock, was a market hunter and carved his own decoys. James became interested in decoy carving around the age of 12, mostly through duck hunting; but what really piqued his interest was watching his Uncle Houston carve during his break times at the boathouse, where James was a constant presence. He fell in love with waterfowl and studied everything he could get his hands on, especially the anatomy and plumage of the birds he shot while hunting.
He did little carving in high school, and what he did carve he used for hunting. His output increased, though, once his Uncle agreed to sell some of his decoys at the Core Sound Decoy Festival where Houston had been an exhibitor since 1989. 1994 was the first year that James participated in the festival, and he carved a life-size green-wing teal, a life-size loon, and 8 miniature duck decoys, all different species, to put on Houston’s table. It was James’ first festival experience, and he was hooked! Houston would sell the decoys that James made, and James would use the money for supplies and items for the upcoming hunting season.
The transition from decoy carving to boat building was a natural one and, contrary to what one might think, not deliberate. Originally planning to join the military after school, James; hopes were dashed when he was diagnosed with glaucoma. Shortly after this discovery, he joined his father and uncle at the boathouse. As his boat building knowledge grew, so did his understanding of decoy carving. James discovered that essentially a decoy is a small boat anchored in the water. He began to refine his style and develop his talent, drawing on influences from the newly formed Core Sound Decoy Carvers Guild. The boat house pulled double duty, serving as his decoy carving shop as well, churning out not only impressive boats but quality decoys, too.
It wasn’t long before the demands of family, and life in general, took over, bringing his decoy carving to a screeching halt. For a number of years, James didn’t carve at all. Long days at the boat yard, volunteer work with the Guild, and family became his priorities.
Interestingly enough, it was family that brought James back to carving. When his some Derek was old enough, James took him to the kids carving events at the Guild, which re-ignited his own passion for carving. A new group of talented contemporary carvers had taken up residence at the Guild, and these men provided the most influence of all on James’ carving. James credits Brother Gaskill, Tommy Rogers, Jack Cox, Jerry Talton, and Curt Salter, all very accomplished carvers, who influenced his carving in some way.
Now that his son is older and James is not any closer to finding more time in a day to carve, the boat house still doubles as the decoy carving shop; and more often than not James is carving late into the night. Somehow along the way he has managed to carve more than just the usual run of ducks; he’s rounded out his production with shorebirds, songbirds, and a bluefish. And, well, it wouldn’t be right carving decoys in the boat shed without carving a couple of model boats, which James has also done – Core Sound work boats, trawlers, and hunting skiffs, complete with miniature decoys. After 30 years of carving, a safe estimate of decoys carved-to-date puts James somewhere around 200-250, while his annual output varies greatly. Some years may only yield one decoy, while others produce closer to 40. It all depends on the boat business.
Recent years have seen James carving mostly for competition. IWCA Style, IWCA Working, Core Sound Working, Canvas, and even Buoy decoys are the divisions where you will find his birds. James favors carving dippers (buffleheads), with redheads a close section; but he prefers most any drake over hens. He uses a variety of woods, with balsa topping the list, followed closely by tupelo, juniper, cork, and bass wood. Spoke shaves, rasps, carving knives, Foredom tools, and a disk sander are all close at hand to get the job done, transforming a block of wood into the waterfowl of choice. Time is a precious commodity for James, but details such as feather placement and color, and the attitude of each individual species are what sets James’ decoys apart from many others.
Fleeting spare moments find James busy with a number of other hobbies or fulfilling his duties as Festival Chairman for the Annual Core Sound Decoy Festival. He serves on the Board of Directors for the Guild as well, and was selected to take over the festival 9 years ago from the previous Chairman and fellow Board member, Wayne Davis. Through James’ dedication, leadership, and organization, the Core Sound Decoy Festival continues to be one of the largest and most celebrated decoy shows on the East Coast.
His love of waterfowl has also encouraged James to express his artistic talents through flat art; he has won the Core Sound Decoy Poster Contest twice, and has been the runner-up on five other occasions. Core Sound and Cape Lookout have played a major role in his art, and his paintings often include the Cape Lookout lighthouse, duck blinds, or the old-style work boats found around Core Sound. James is also a talented photographer, often taking pictures that capture the beauty of the island where he lives and the waterfowl that frequents the surrounding waterways.
James won’t say if he feels he’s a better boat builder of carver; he tries to do his best with both. However, having a well-known boat builder as a father and a decoy carver as an uncle has certainly made a mark on him. He professes though that being compared to his father was much more difficult than being compared to his Uncle Houston, mostly because the two have very different carving styles. “One thing is for sure,” he says, “Anyone who knows I am Jamie’s son expects me to do quality work.”
This reputation for quality, as well as the family’s commitment to the Harkers Island boatbuilding tradition, took them to Raleigh last year, where the Lewis family was awarded the 2016 North Carolina Heritage Award. The Heritage Award, a program of the N.C. Arts Council, has honored traditional artists in the state, deepening awareness of the stories, music, and artistry that comprise our rich and diverse cultural traditions since 1989.
And if he had to do it all over again? “If commercial fishing was like it was when I was growing up, I reckon it would be that,” James says. “Almost all of my family has worked on the water at some time, and I grew up around it. Both my grandfathers and two of my uncles were full-time commercial fisherman. I know it’s a hard life, but it’s a good life. I love to be on the water.” And then he adds, “But whatever I’m doing, I’m sure to be carving decoys.” Spoken like a true Core Sounder.