Ken Humphries moved Down East in the mid-90s to build boats after finishing college. He never left. By day, you can find him working at Cherry Point Air Station. By night, if he’s not coaching his sons’ little league teams or leading local Boy Scouts, you’ll find him in a tiny wooden workshop behind his home in Marshallberg. Within the walls of this understated burgundy wooden building, Ken creates art.
Ken always wanted to work with his hands. Born and raised in Pamlico County, he received a BFA in communication arts with a focus in graphic design from East Carolina University. After the call of North Carolina’s boat building mecca brought him Down East, Ken nurtured his creative inclinations through oil painting. Today, you can find his paintings — detailed oil renderings of coastal North Carolina scenes and landscapes — in the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center and in local businesses throughout the region. The realism and intimacy Ken captures, particularly in renderings of Down East, harkens of Edward Hopper.
Down East has a way of casting spells, and the magic of its natural beauty and culture wound its way into much of Ken’s creative life. It didn’t take long for him to fall into one of the area’s most celebrated traditions: decoy carving. A humble and hungry student, Ken has relied on some of the area’s most recognized decoy carvers for mentorship and training. A relative newcomer to the scene, Ken’s only recently started entering decoys into competitions. We sat down to talk with Ken about decoy carving as creative outlet and as cultural bridge.
How did you get into decoy carving?
I came here years ago building boats with a friend and ended up doing a lot of artwork on the side. Your surroundings sort of dictate what’s going on, and I started doing a lot of flat art and decoy carving. There’s a lot of heritage here with decoys. Because I’ve always enjoyed working with my hands and had some artistic skill, it was bound to happen. It just sort of ended up that way. And I grew up duck hunting on Bay River in Pamlico so it was just a natural thing. I enjoy it and seems I take to it pretty well.
When you’re around here, you’re immersed in [carving]. Everybody’s doing it. It’s just a natural extension — You’ve got so many boat builders down here and a lot are duck guides in their spare time and [in the] winter. I know some folks that carve their own birds and hunt with them. Obviously, there are a lot of plastic decoys out there, and that’s fine, but there are still some [wood decoys]. We find them floating every now and then, and they’re carved out of a chunk of wood right out of a burn pile. It’s really cool. They’re nothing fancy, but that’s the whole point. None of them really were, but they do the job and they do what they’re supposed to do.
Where did you learn to carve?
Well … [just] being around here. There are a lot of folks who know how to do it, so you can get pointers along the way. You also pick up a lot just by doing it. You learn to make your patterns. You make a bunch of mistakes — a bunch of goofy rookie mistakes — but as you go along you really start picking up little tricks that seem to make things easier and seem to make things look a little more presentable, and over time you’re able to put it all together. It’s enjoyable once you finally grab hold on it and can feel confident enough to start showing some pieces.
Tell us about your process. How do you do it, and what materials do you use?
Juniper…that’s my favorite [wood]. It’s got a great smell. It’s enjoyable to carve. It carves easy. I tend to like the old style, using just hand tools. I do have a band saw, and I will cut out blanks [with it], but for the most part what we would do is just take a block of wood and just start working it down. This process has been around for a long time, and just about every carver down here has done it. That’s the way they’ve done them for years.That’s the way anybody who learns how to carve begins. You learn how to use the hand tools. A lot of guys go onto decorative carving, but you better believe they know how to use these [hand tools].
Do you have a preference for carving decorative decoys versus functional decoys?
Well, I’ll tell you, one of the reasons I got into doing these style of decoys — these working birds — is because with the paintings, which I still enjoy doing, it really takes a lot of time. [The paintings] are fun, and I like getting through them, but there are times when they’re a little tiresome, so [carving] these working birds is kind of a release from that. They’re fun. You can get them done in a matter of time, and the paint jobs, you don’t have to fret over so hard. So, I probably enjoy doing the working birds more. I just gravitate to those, and you know that’s what this area’s known for, and that’s what I really enjoy.
The Core Sound birds [have] round bodies — nice stout bodies, and [they are] simple. Not a whole lot of detail. [They have] simple paint jobs — block paint jobs. Those are the things that make this area great. The decoys are simple and they’re made as tools, but they’ve got a really nice appeal to them. They’ve held up through the years, and they’ve become really collectible.
There are some talented people down here. It keeps you going. It keeps you inspired. It’s fun to watch the styles cycle through everybody. You learn things from other people, and you can see who learns from who, and it just sort of trickles down. There are some folks around here that just have an incredible knowledge of carvers. They can look at a bird [and] tell you who did it. They can tell you when it was done, where they lived when they did it, [and] what tools they were using. I’m learning a lot about that right now. I quietly sit and listen often when those guys are getting together and talking. It’s fun to be a part of that.
You’re carrying on a tradition that’s been celebrated here for so long, yet you’re not from here. How does it connect you to the Down East region?
You’re right. There are a lot of folks who are originally from here that do this, and it’s in their blood, and it’s in their heritage. It’s in their genes, and that’s really cool. I really admire that. Sometimes I wish I had that. But this is the way it ended up. I moved here. I love what goes on with it. I love the style of it, and I sort of look at it as carrying on the tradition even though I’m not originally from here.
These guys have been very welcoming to me. It’s been nice and enjoyable getting to know a lot of these carvers. A lot of the old-time carvers that have passed on, but I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a few of those, and of course there are a lot of young guys that are hitting it hard just like I am — or a whole lot harder and doing a really good job.. I look up to them and spend a lot of time asking questions and making mistakes and calling them up [or] texting them, “Hey man what do I need to do here?” They’ve been more than gracious helping me out.
Why is it important for this tradition to continue?
I look at the kids around here, and they were brought up around it. My kids both come in here with me sometimes and piddle. I keep them away from the really sharp tools, but they help me paint all the time. My older son did carve a head for me for Christmas, which is just the coolest. Now it's rough, but it’s the first one he’s ever done. He cut it out with the band saw by himself and completely did all the carving by himself and surprised me with it, and I was just tickled to death.
I really do think it’s important. It’s heritage around here. The [Core Sound] museum over there and the [Core Sound Decoy Carvers] Guild both promote that and want that heritage to keep going. There’s a lot of programs with both groups that feature kids painting and carving. Every year when the decoy festival comes around, they have a poster contest. All the kids from area schools do drawings to try to enter the contest. It’s really good. I do think it’s important. It’s something that needs to be passed on.
And these decoys give locals a supplemental income that really helps in the off-season?
It’s extra cash. It’s a big help to a lot of the guys — especially the commercial fisherman. That’s a tough industry right now, and those guys are able to supplement their income [by selling decoys]. That’s sometimes hard to come by.
I’ve got a day job. I’m lucky enough to have a good job, but this for me is a nice release. After we get the kids to bed and have supper, I come out here and just unwind a little bit and it’s fun and I enjoy it.. I use the extra money to go on family vacations with it.
Tell us about your painting.
Strangely enough one of the first things I did was paint a decoy — a picture of a decoy, so it’s kind of coming around full circle. I went to school, but I was not a fine artist. I did commercial art. But I got down here and just started piddling with it one day, and did one and it really came out – everybody was really happy with it, and that kind of encouraged me so I kept on going. I got enough up for a show and was able to show at the waterfowl museum. That was years ago. It was well received and I was chosen in later years as one of the featured artists for the annual membership poster that they do, and I’ve done two of those. Those were a blast. [It was] a different experience for somebody who hasn’t been around that a lot...lots of prints, lots of signatures…whew man. It gives you a lot of exposure, and people were so nice. They’re so pleasant, and I love painting and it just makes you feel good. If you walk in say a doctor’s office and you see your print there, or say a restaurant, which happens sometimes, it gives you a good feeling. It’s kind of cool. It’s pretty nice. So I just kept on going with painting, and it’s always been oils. I just enjoy the consistency there, and I just kept going with it.I try to keep it in check with this, and I try to keep them going at the same time.
[I paint] lots of coastal stuff. This place is so rich. Just about anywhere you turn around there’s something cool to see and paint. It’s a great spot to be an artist. There are a lot of them here. There’s a lot of talented people here in flat art, in carving, in boat building. You name it. People down here are just resourceful. They know how to do things with their hands. It’s a very great place to be to do that kind of work.