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Carving out her own niche

Oak Crest’s Jeanne Hiss turns decoy making hobby into full-time vocation

Created date

June 21st, 2011

For the most part, wood carving has always been a male-dominated pastime. But that didn t stop Jeanne Hiss from pursuing the hobby which later turned into a full-time job as one of the few professional female decoy makers in the country. Jeanne, who recently moved from Havre de Grace to Oak Crest, an Erickson Living community in Parkville, Md., first tried her hand at decoy carving in 1983 when a search for an anniversary gift for her brother landed her in an eight-week-long decoy carving class taught by renowned carver Dan Williams. During the first class, Mr. Williams held up a block of wood and said, There s a duck in this block of wood and we re going to set him free, Jeanne recalls. I was the only woman in the whole class and most of the men already knew how to use the tools and carve. I went in with my knife, a chisel, and a gauge, and the only one I was sure how to use was the knife. So I waited until the man next to me picked up one of the other tools and then I picked mine up like I knew what I was doing, she says. Jeanne s first attempt at decoy carving produced what she fondly refers to as the Bob Hope duck. It had this ski-sloped nose, she says. But I wasn t discouraged. I said to myself, Jeanne, you can do better. And she did. Her second bird sold and her third attempt went to her brother for his 50th wedding anniversary. They were thrilled with it, she says.

Ducks unlimited

In the years that followed, Jeanne became more and more passionate about carving and left her job as a credit union manager at St. Joseph s Hospital to carve full-time. I discovered I didn t have the time to do both, so I chose carving and kept my fingers crossed. As it turned out, her decision was spot on. She went on to become an accomplished carver showing and selling her work at shows from Seattle, Wash., to Charleston, S.C., earning her anywhere from $300 to $6,000 per piece. The first time I had ever been invited to participate in a show, I thought it was a joke, Jeanne says. I had only been carving for three or four years when I received a phone call to participate in a show on Maryland s Eastern Shore. I literally thought the man on the phone was playing a trick on me. It was hard to fathom that people would actually pay me for my work.

The cat that ate the

As a testament to just how realistic Jeanne s ducks appear, one of her most prized decoys was so realistic, it was attacked by a friend s cat. I had just finished this beautiful Pintail duck, she says. I was really proud of it because it s such a difficult duck to do. I had taken it with me to show a friend I was visiting. When I sat the duck down on an end table, the next thing I knew their cat crept up and pounced on it, breaking the tail right off, she says. Since her first duck, carved in 1983, Jeanne s decoys have appeared in collections around the world. Back then, she carved about eight hours a day and produced about four large decoys a year. She continues to carve three to four small ducks a year. However, these days she has replaced her knife, gauge, and chisel with power tools used for carving and sanding.

Right at her fingertips

When we moved to Oak Crest this past November, I was a little concerned about where I would do my carving, she says. But then I found out that there is a fabulous woodshop right here on the campus. Every kind of tool you could ever want is there. So that s where I do what I call my dirty work. Jeanne says she tries to carve every day, but there s so much going on at Oak Crest, sometimes it s hard to find the time. Since we moved to Oak Crest I ve been busier than ever, she says. This November, Jeanne, accompanied by Warren, her husband of 64 years, will display and sell her work at the Maryland Waterfowl Festival in Easton, Md. The following week she will appear at Harford Day School where she will discuss ducks and decoys with second graders. Warren has always been very supportive of my work, Jeanne says. He s also a good talker and a salesman. I joke with him all the time that he s management and I m the labor.