There is probably no family in Northern Michigan more devoted to the art of fish decoy carving than the Mason family and all it’s branches. In this family it seems as though carving a fish decoy comes as naturally as walking and talking. Young Marvin, Jr. carved his first from an old orange crate when he was but 5 years old. In doing this he was following in the footsteps of his father, Marvin, Sr., his uncles, Lloyd, John, Owen and Earl Mason, and great uncles Carl, Ervin, Woodrow, Bill and Rod Veihl and Kenneth Bruning. When he was just eight or nine, “Mase” kicked it up a notch and carved his first fish plaque.
He grew up with Jack Eddy and the two of them fished “The Pond” and carved together, each one playing off the other. This friendly competition plus the strong carving traditions of both families spurred them both on to higher levels of creativity. Mason has had a measure of recognition having been featured in not one but two exhibits at Michigan State University’s Kresge Art Museum; Michigan Folk Art; It’s Beginnings to 1941 and Rainbows In The Sky, 1976 and 1978 respectively. The Cleveland Museum of Art also has had examples of his work in it’s permanent collection since the late ‘70s.
Marvin’s earliest decoys were very simple in design and painted with whatever paint was available including plain white. But he soon developed a more sophisticated style by carving from live models in an attempt to capture their essential form, coloration and movement. Mase learned from his father how to paint small colorful dots with a toothpick. He carved his decoys from pine or cedar using just a jackknife and gouges of his own manufacture, cut the fins from old Crisco cans and painted with oil paints to achieve the most realistic coloration. He later changed to copper, brass and sometimes aluminum for the fins. Occasionally examples are seen with carved wooden fins or S curved bodies. The eyes were almost always carved and painted. Frequently fish hook eyes were used as line-ties and the leading was a single rectangular belly weight.
Mason’s decoys were very popular with ice fishermen around the Tower area as they had a reputation for being real fish getters and were sold for a time out of the Onaway Sports Center for $7.00 each, a high price for a fish decoy in those days. He has carved nearly every species of fish native to Northern Michigan plus all the usual critters; newts, mice, frogs and lamprey. Although they were not signed in any obvious way, his Brook Trout were sometimes marked by camouflaging the letters M M within the vermiculation on the right side of the back near the dorsal fin. He probably had his peak production during the ‘60s and ‘70s and continued to carve into the late ‘80s but hasn’t done much recently. Nowadays he spends most of his time hunting and fishing in the Grand Marais area of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
In addition to the fish decoys Mason also carved ice rods, jigging sticks, Michigan wildlife miniatures, plaques, fish models, toys, wood tools, signs and as if to prove his versatility he even made a few spears. He worked for 21 years as the head of maintenance for Cheboygan’s Community Memorial Hospital.
Information above provided by Gary Miller
This is an excerpt of an up-coming book by Gary Miller on Michigan Carvers