Center Snapshot: Lee Abston
Image above: Lee Abston says the watercolors, like that behind him, take about a week, but duck decoys take as long as a year. Still, he gets more satisfaction from carving the birds. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith.
By: Jim Hodges
Lee Abston had always had an artist bent, so when he visited the man who would become his father-in-law, he noticed the carvings on the wall.
"I said I've got to know how he did that," said Abston, then in Poquoson High School, to his new girlfriend, who became wife Bethany.
When Will Rollins got home, Abston popped the question: "How do you do that?"
"He said, 'get you a pocketknife and go get you a block of wood and come back,' " Abston remembered. "When I got back, he looked at the pocketknife and he looked at the wood and said, 'Now, cut everything away that doesn't look like a duck.' "
Abston, an aerospace engineer who works in computer aided design in NASA Langley’s Mechanical Systems Branch, is largely self-taught. That education, which included 12 years in Langley's Composite Model shop, has produced duck decoys that would fool any fowl if cast upon the waters of the Back River. Instead, the decoys are entered in competition, in which they have placed as high as third in the world and commanded offers of several thousands of dollars from potential buyers.
In those competitions, the anatomically correct ducks are put into a pond upside down to make certain they right themselves properly, then float as lifelike as possible. A winnowing-out process drives the emotions, more than you would expect from anything involving a wooden bird. In part, it's because the carver has invested months, even a year in his duck decoy.
"You really get into it when you go to a show and they put something of yours into a tank, a bird, and they start pulling out other birds because they're no longer in the competition," said Abston, who competes as a professional for cash prizes after time spent as a novice. "Your heart rate goes up. And when it comes down to where it's between you and two other birds for first, second and third, it's like your heart is coming out of your chest.
"You're pumped. You're amped, and you want to go home and carve another bird, because you've gotten more ideas from the competition."
And so he gets another block of Tupelo gum, a wood that grows at the water's edge in the South. And he gets a "study bill," which is a cast mold of an actual duck's head and bill.
Detail pays off in competitive carving, which begins with research into the species and gender that Abston wants to try next. A shoveler has one look, a red head another. The male has one color, the female another. A sleeping bird has a look. One that has just finished preening has a different look.
It's easier to fool another bird at 500 feet than a judge standing next to the decoy.
Measurements are taken with calipers to make certain the eyes are exactly right. He favors eyes faced forward in a fierce expression, "mean and mad, like he's been eating good and he's tougher than you are," Abston said. "When he's in the tank, he looks healthier that the others. If you’ve got one duck that looks passive and one that looks like he has an attitude, the judges will go for the attitude every time."
Even the pictures from the most lifelike book aren't enough. Abston's previous residence had a pond outside his window where he could use a live model: a duck swimming. Birds shot by hunters were stored so he could pull them out of a freezer to check for color, also important to judges.
Some of the carving is done mechanically, but detail requires a more delicate touch. So, too, does work with acrylic paint, with each feather getting attention and paint mixed to show the various shades from the stem of the feather to its tip, air brushing in tones.
Some decoys can be done in a month. With others, "it takes me about a year to do one that I'm satisfied with," Abston said.
Satisfaction comes differently these days. He has moved from his aviary to acreage in Poquoson and is putting together a new workshop. To exercise his artistic capability, Abston has taken up painting.
Watercolors on a wall in his office in Building 1209 are testimony to his skill, particularly when it comes to waterfront scenes.
"Last fall or winter, I went to Hudson Williams, a buddy on the Outer Banks," Abston said. "I said, 'man, I’ve got to have something to do, to create while I don’t have my shop.' I watched him paint in watercolors with my wife and daughters (Carrie and April), and then we came back home and tried it. I took my paintings back to him, and he said, 'this is good. Keep on going.' "
Abston has done 13 paintings in the past year and has sold most of them. He continues to paint, when he's not getting his workshop in order or planning his next fishing trip. Fall fishing season is likely to get in the way for a while.
Painting is short-term. "That’s the coolest thing," Abston said. "I can do that in a week."
On his desk at Langley was a duck decoy that took a year of work.
But he wants to get his workshop in order to get back to carving ducks.
"I love seeing an idea coming to life," he said. "Then when you go to a show, if people appreciate your work, it energizes you even more."