With summer fast approaching, it will be difficult, but imagine a lake frozen over solid enough to walk across the ice. Now imagine that a little shack has been dragged out onto the ice. Inside the shack it is dark, and in that darkness there is a man holding a spear. The man is waiting and watching, staring down into a glowing hole cut into the ice, light coming up reflected from the bottom of the lake. If you were to look into the hole, you would be able to see the fish swimming around in the ice-covered lake.
The man with the spear doesn’t use live bait to attract his prey; instead he has a fish decoy, which he uses to lure fish in close enough to gouge them. This decoy may be shaped like a perch, bluegill or sucker, or it may only be vaguely fish-like in shape. The colors and markings on the fish could be realistic, or bright red with yellow polka dots; it all depends on what the real fish will bite. But the decoy itself is a technology (and, in its variations, an art form) that mankind has been working on for more than 3,000 years.
When a tool stops being necessary to secure food, we become free to appreciate it for its aesthetic merits, and this is where “Hooked on Wood: The Allure of the Fish Decoy,” on view at The Center for Art in Wood, comes into play. The show is half history lesson and half celebration of a folk tradition named art after the fact, with pieces spanning millennia, region and a wide range of artistic intent. The oldest ones on display, like a prehistoric Alaskan decoy dating from 1,000 B.C., were created with no thought to ever being seen outside of the context of catching fish, while some contemporary makers have competitions, collectors or enthusiasts in mind, seeking to catch the eyes of humans rather than fish.
The earliest known fish decoys were formed out of bone, antler, shell and ivory by North American natives in the Northwest, and they may be the earliest form of fake animal made to aid in hunting actual animals — they predate the oldest found duck decoys by roughly 1,000 years. Later, European immigrants to the area added their own methodologies, constructing false fish with metals, glass, wood and paint. The fabrication of ice-fishing lures grew in the late 19th century with commercial opportunities brought on by the Industrial Revolution and experienced a need-based renaissance during the Great Depression.
There’s something particularly magical about the simplest models here, many of which appear to have experienced some wear and tear in the field. Most novel are fish that look like barely transformed wood with wild color patterns, like Trout, formed by Charles Maloche in 1920. To understand how these color choices may have evolved from the straight replicas, imagine once again that fisherman in the dark shack. He’s been in there for hours, or days, focusing on that hole cut into the ice. As he waits, sometimes he carves new lures. If there’s a heat source going, the oxygen in the enclosed space grows thinner; with that and the monotony, he begins to consider what his fish facsimile would look like marbled with aqua and covered with bright orange polka dots, and concludes “pretty good.” Perhaps he makes a big catch with this new decoy and brags about it later, and others take note. For this fisherman, the story would only get better if it ended at an art gallery in Philadelphia.
“Hooked on Wood: The Allure of the Fish Decoy,” through July 21, Center for Art in Wood, 141 N. Third St., 215-923-8000, centerforartinwood.org.