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Sprankle’s hand-carved collection of decoys being donated to ‘Ding’

By Staff | Mar 1, 2011

Jim Sprankle holds the final addition to his collection of decoys being donated to the "Ding" Darling Wildlife Society, a red-breasted merganser hen carved in 2010.

Back in 1968, with his days of being a professional baseball player behind him, Jim Sprankle started a new hobby: carving duck decoys.

Some 43 years later, the renowned sculptor and member of the Waterfowl Festival’s National Hall of Fame is still a master of his craft. And a generous supporter of island causes, as he has been since Sprankle and his family moved to Sanibel in 1994.

On March 22, Sprankle will donate 43 duck decoys — representing one carving for each of the 43 years he has been hand-crafting the lifelike pieces of art — which will soon become a permanent exhibit in the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge’s Education Center.

“I could not sit here and put into words how honored I am to have 43 of my birds on display at ‘Ding’ Darling,” Sprankle last week following the announcement of the donation, which has been valued at $400,000. “And if I had never met (my wife) Patty 30 years ago, I might never had heard of Sanibel Island.”

The collection, which the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. had shown interest in acquiring, represents the evolution of decoys from native American waterfowl lures — created from dried grasses and reeds — to contemporary sculptures known for their attention to detail. It includes bird species such as the blue-winged teal, common loon, ringneck duck, red-breasted and hooded merganser, widgeon, puffin and wood duck.

Two of Sprankle's most intricate and colorful carvings.

“Many of today’s decoys are highly decorative, and their anatomical accuracy is expected and valued, so they are not used for hunting,” said Sprankle. “There are decoy carving competitions all over North America, and a percentage of the proceeds from these events go towards wildfowl conservation.”

The decoy artist said that his passion for wood carving was born in his youth, with his grandfather earning a living as a cabinetmaker.

“I was always in his workshop, watching him work with wood,” he recalled.

As he grew older and began hunting ducks for sport, Sprankle stated that his initial interest in carving duck decoys came from a desire to have his own rig of decoys.

“I always thought they should look more natural,” said the Lafayette, Ind. native. “They all sort of looked the same, kinda stoic, with their heads all turned the same way.”

The wall in Sprankle's home which currently houses his collection.

Sprankle made their first of several thousands of decoys — a canvasback drake — in 1968. Soon, he was making more hand-carved ducks and other waterfowl, improving upon his skill and attention to detail along the way.

“Then I heard that they had decoy competitions,” he explained, adding his trademark grin. “Pretty soon I became obsessed with winning those competitions. In baseball, they don’t teach you how to lose.”

The former pitcher in the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds organizations, Sprankle went on to garner more than 70 Best of Show awards for his decoy carvings. Following an operation and successful battle against cancer in 1976, he sold his commercial refrigeration business in order to spend more time with his family and creating some of the world’s most intricate and ornate decoys.

“I would have never dreamed that it would evolve into something like this,” said Sprankle, who noted that his career reached its pinnacle in 2004 when he presented George W. Bush with a commissioned American bald eagle sculpture entitled “Freedom Fighter,” which will hold a place of honor in the future presidential library in Texas.

“It’s been quite a career… 43 years is a long time,” he added.

One of Jim Sprankle's favorites in his collection is this widgeon drake.

The collection will go on public display on Wednesday, March 23. Sprankle will be on hand from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. to speak to visitors about his collection and his art. On Friday, March 25, he will present his “From Folk Art To Fine Art” lecture and slide show as part of the final “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society 2011 Friday Afternoon Lecture Series. Admission is free, but seating is limited and available on a first-come basis.

To further the tradition of decoys benefiting the environment, DDWS is offering sponsorship of Sprankle’s decoys at $2,500 per duck. Proceeds will be used to display the collection and support The Children’s Birding Trail that will connect Indigo Trail with access to The Sanibel School. Duck sponsors will be listed on a plaque at the exhibit site.

For more information on Sprankle’s appearances or to sponsor a duck, contact DDWS Executive Director Birgie Vertesch by calling 239-292-0566 or sending an e-mail to director@dingdarlingsociety.org.

As a non-profit 501(c)3 organization, DDWS works to support J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge’s mission of conservation, wildlife and habitat protection, research, and public education through charitable donations and Refuge Nature Shop proceeds.