American folk artist William Sarni is determined to keep the art of decoy carving alive.By Lenore Cullen Barnes | Photography by Derrick Zellmann
Wooden decoy carving has deep roots in Hingham. Historically used by bird hunters to attract waterfowl, wooden decoys now serve a more valuable and pragmatic purpose: collectable art. Hingham is home to some of the country’s finest decoy artists, both past and present, and the Hingham style of carving has earned itself a prominent reputation worldwide.
Longtime Hingham resident and artist William (Bill) Sarni is part of a local group of talented woodcarvers and he’s determined to keep decoy carving from becoming a lost art. Through the classes he teaches, the antique decoys he collects and restores, and even his own intricate carvings, Sarni celebrates this American folk art tradition and the regional nature that inspires his craft.
As we move around Sarni’s timber-framed studio filled with finished decoys, works in process, photos of the local “master” carvers he emulates and rough pieces of wood, he picks up a log. “A friend gave me this,” he says. “He gave it to me to burn in the wood stove. But I look at it—the grain, color and shape—and say, I can’t burn that.” Ever the artist, Sarni sees the form within—the shorebird, the songbird, the duck that this slice of wood will become—as he performs yet another act of carving alchemy.
Sarni traces his love of decoy carving back to his youth, which he spent hunting and fishing, as well as to the area’s recognized carvers: Joseph W. Lincoln, Alfred Gardner, Ralph Lauri, and Russ and Alston Burr. Of those five carvers, Sarni knew three of them. Lincoln passed away in 1938, but his widow lived next door to Sarni’s childhood home. Around 1983, during his 35-year career as an engineer, Sarni tried his own hand at carving wildlife and bird decoys, teaching himself how to carve and paint on spruce two-by-four lumber. When hobby turned to passion, Sarni took a lesson from Weymouth resident and carver Roger Mitchell. Sarni credits his engineering background with allowing him to “see three-dimensionally” and carve without a model.
A gift from his wife Jeannette and daughters Susan and Holly further fueled Sarni’s enthusiasm for woodcarving and decoy collecting. In the mid-1980s, they enrolled him in a workshop with renowned carver Mark McNair. Following the class, Sarni plunged into researching local carvers, styles and the history of the art form. His expertise expanded as he focused on the Hingham and New England styles of carving and local carvers.
“I think what I love most about carving decoys is that when I am carving, in the mode and so very focused, it brings me back in time to when folks produced works of art for a purpose, so called ‘folk art,’ a true American art form,” Sarni says.
In addition to his own carvings, Sarni has amassed an extensive collection of prized antique decoys procured at auctions, antique shops and private sales. He’s even begun selling his own decoys. But Sarni gets the most joy from the classes he teaches. He meets his students in the barn located on his property overlooking Weir River—a setting rich in natural beauty and abounding with artistic inspiration.
Sarni built his studio in 2004. “I was running out of room with all my decoys and needed space to work and display them.” The following year, Sarni was approached by the friend of a friend to give a lesson. “From that, through word of mouth, the classes grew.”
And continued to grow. He now has a long waiting list of new students and as many returning students.
Sarni also conducts traditional decoy carving workshops as part of the annual Early American Arts and Crafts Class presented by the Nantucket Historical Association. Each September, he spends two weeks on the island teaching classes in the historic 1800 House to students who run the spectrum from novice to accomplished artists. They carve local birds, ducks and whales.
“I love to watch them,” says Sarni. “You can see the hesitancy in their eyes at first. They’re not sure if they like it. Then the chips start flying as they carve.”
Since he first tried his hand at carving, Sarni has garnered numerous awards for his decoys and a faithful following among collectors and fans who have commissioned his work. He earned a Blue Ribbon at the world competition at Salisbury College, and in his first competition at the New England Wildlife Exposition in Northford, Connecticut, he won First Place Best of Show. On several occasions, Sarni has been named one of the top 200 traditional craftsmen in the country by “Early American Life” magazine.
Among other publications, Sarni’s work has appeared in two Lark Art books, “By Hand” and “Design,” and “Manspace” by Sam Martin, and has been displayed in museums and galleries throughout Massachusetts and beyond. Sarni was also selected from folk artists statewide for an interview through the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s Folk Arts and Heritage Program.
Sarni’s fondness for all things Hingham and devotion to its history is evident even in Hingham Square. When selectman John Riley decided to replace the “Hingham Square” sign, he asked Sarni to hand paint and letter the new sign, which was crafted by Hank Wilcox using wood timbers from the historic Asa Cole homestead.
William D. Sarni’s decoys are available at White Magdalena in Hingham, the Hingham Historical Society gift shop, Nantucket Looms on Nantucket and Ducktrap Bay Trading Company in Camden, Maine.
For more information, woodcarving classes or to purchase Bill Sarni’s artwork, email email@example.com or visit his website.