Harold Haertel often made several drawings of a bird before beginning a carving. PHOTO COURTESY OF GILLEY MUSEUM

Haertel and Gilley: A shared passion for carving

SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Bird carver Harold Haertel was a self-professed duck nut, inspired by the waterfowl of Illinois where he lived and created decoys. Many of those decoys are now on display at the Wendell Gilley Museum.

This poster by Bruce Matteson features bird carver Harold Haertel, who is the focus of a new exhibit at the Wendell Gilley Museum. He was an uncle of Gilley board member and former Acadia National Park Superintendent Paul Haertel, who curated the exhibit. PHOTO COURTESY OF GILLEY MUSEUM

Haertel and Gilley were both born in 1904, in different regions of the country, and they shared a passion for bird carving. Both men spent the later years of their lives carving birds for a living, though their styles are distinctly different.

“They both have very strong personalities,” said Sean Charette, director of the Gilley Museum. “Our basic interest in this show it just telling a different story about carving.”

Inspired by an article in National Geographic in 1915 about waterfowl, Haertel began carving decoys for his boyhood hunting ventures on the Fox River near Dundee, Ill.

He carved as a hobby for most of his adult life. When his was in his 60s, it became his living. He also lent his expertise to carving competitions as a judge in Iowa, Michigan, Maryland and California.

“He always said he never lacked for orders,” said Paul Haertel, Harold’s nephew, an avid birder and a former superintendent of Acadia National Park. He curated the show and is a trustee of the Gilley’s board.

“One of the pieces that’s on display I grew up watching Harold carve,” he said. He and Charette traveled to the home of Harold Haertel’s son’s Tom, where most of the carver’s work is stored.

“It was really a nice time and a walk down memory lane for me,” said Paul Haertel. The nearly 80 pieces in the exhibit “all look as though they’re alive and ready to jump out of the water … just beautifully made,” he said.

While his early carvings were mostly decoys used for hunting, Haertel expanded his repertoire to several species focused on bird conservation in his later years.

Haertel’s decoys were used in a bird monitoring program, as explained in one of the exhibit displays. The decoys would lure the birds to where they could be captured with mist netting to capture birds, have information recorded and then be banded and released.

“That’s when Harold really got into making shorebird decoys,” said Paul Haertel, explaining they were tracking more 100 species in the monitoring program. “Those were some of his finest works in terms of detail.”

As a young adult, Haertel honed his skill working for his family’s monument business, carving flowers and other décor in stone.

In order to study the detail of his bird subjects, Haertel learned taxidermy and drew several versions of the birds before choosing how to sculpt them.

Haertel crafted most of his early decoys from old posts and telephone poles and later used northern white cedar, pine and dense cork. Tools used for creating the birds were limited to a band saw, belt sander, a drawshave, carving knives, rasp and sandpaper.

Haertel mainly used oil paint for the birds and had his own method of layering that lent lifelike features to them.

“Both Wendell and Harold painted with oils and both did the carvings from start to finish,” said Charette. “We very carefully packed everything and documented everything to get it here.”

Haertel’s work is featured in several museums around the country, including the Field Museum and the Smithsonian.

“He did a small number of mourning doves and passenger pigeons,” said Charette. “Those are the pieces that got picked up by museums.”

In his book “American Bird Decoys,” William Mackey spoke highly of Haertel: “His perfection to detail and adherence to species conformation and plumage patterns are second to none, and his present work is incomparable.”

The exhibit is on display through October. Contact 244-7555 or visit wendellgilleymuseum.org.

Sarah Hinckley

Sarah Hinckley

Former Islander reporter Sarah Hinckley covered the towns of Southwest Harbor, Tremont and neighboring islands.

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