Illuminating the extraordinary
“Oh, man!” Roy quips, “I have been hunting all my life! I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t hunting! Daddy always had bird dogs and we did a lot of quail hunting,” back when wild coveys of bobwhite were still abundant throughout the Lowcountry.
For Roy Smoak of Yonges Island, a mastery of woodcarving birds was reaped from such an immersion in the outdoors.
As a boy, Roy began duck hunting with Colonel Buck Boykin of Boykin, South Carolina. “Col. Buck retired to Yonges Island and he was good friends with my daddy.” Smoak recalls the experience: “Back then, we didn’t fool with decoys much. Col. Buck liked to do it the old time-way. We used to call it jump-shooting.”
From a motor-less wooden bateau, Col. Buck paddled and poled creeks off the South Edisto River near Willtown, as the eager boy gripped a shotgun in the bow, hoping to flush ducks. “Nobody much does it that way anymore. We took turns; sometimes I paddled and he shot.”
“I was eat’ up with it!” Smoak jokes as he emphasizes his youthful passion for duck hunting. In his early 20s while still hobbling on crutches from a knee injury, Roy actually accompanied a friend to hunt the spoil areas along the Cooper River.
During the early 1980s, Smoak and a number of friends owned Block Island, a diked-in rice field in the ACE Basin. “There were a lot of pintails, mallards, teal, widgeon and the occasional black ducks.” Roy reflects. “We burned and flooded the rice fields and planted corn and buckwheat.”
As a hunter, Roy also became an accomplished dog trainer. He won awards with Saki, his yellow lab, which he bred to the son of Super Chief, a national champion. The pick of the litter was Bohicket Black Hawk. As a puppy, Hawk earned Top Point Dog in the Palmetto Retriever Club. Roy and his retrievers traveled the Southeast to participate in field trials. “Of course, you meet all sorts of interesting people at those field trials,” he looks back.
Smoak recalls a humorous story during which he was required to employ an unorthodox method of working his Labrador. “Saki and I were duck hunting on Samson Island Creek off the South Edisto River. I had set out my decoys way up in the marsh and the tide dropped, leaving my decoys high and dry on a mud bank. You don’t want to confuse your dog by having her retrieve your decoys, but I didn’t have any other way to get them. Saki brought every one of those decoys back to the boat!” he smiles.
Hunting has inspired Smoak to venture far beyond his native Lowcountry. Ducks have called him to destinations such as Lake Charles, Louisiana and Saskatchewan, Canada. Elk have led Roy to New Mexico and he has hunted mule deer and antelope in Montana. While on safari in South Africa, Roy has harvested trophies such as kudu, impala, sable antelope and warthog.
While studying entomology at Clemson, Smoak met Adair McKoy of Sumter and they thumbed home together, as was the custom in a bygone era. Some years later, Smoak settled on John’s Island and Adair moved to Wadmalaw. McKoy’s younger brother, Grainger, set up a woodcarving shop in an old store on the place along Bears Bluff Road.
The now world-renowned artwork of Grainger McCoy awakened in Smoak an artistic passion for birds that exuberantly took flight. “Man, when I saw Grainger’s duck carvings in that store on Wadmalaw, I couldn’t believe what I was looking at! I saw how real they were and how he had burned the feathers. I told myself: ‘I have got to try that!’
“I hung around Grainger’s shop and just kind of observed what he did. I started to piddle around with carving and would call Grainger for tips. The first piece I did was a green-winged teal. I was so proud I didn’t know what to do! Man, I thought that duck was the best thing in the world!”
The writer Norman Maclean reminds us that “art does not come easy,” a proverb Smoak would soon appreciate. “I showed that teal to Grainger and he immediately said I needed to throw it in the trash. I felt terrible,” Roy chuckles, now appreciative of his mentor’s honesty and wisdom.
The artist tirelessly seeks to illuminate the extraordinary features existent within the seemingly ordinary. So, in 1976, Roy fashioned a gift for his mother from a common and under-appreciated Lowcountry native — the red-winged blackbird. In a flurry, he crafted wood ducks, wigeon and a much-improved green-winged teal. Hooded mergansers, blue-winged teal and heads of mallards and canvasbacks would follow.
Beneath the mount of a Cape buffalo he bagged in Zimbabwe, Smoak opens a curio and discusses samples of his work. Picking up a shore bird, he says: “Here’s a sora rail.” Gesturing towards the fowl’s kin, he continues: “I carved that marsh hen in 1980. I mixed up Bondo Filler to make the mud it’s standing in; I left the Bondo unpainted since it dries to about the same color as pluff mud.”
From another cabinet, Roy discusses a dove and woodcock, both in flight. “For those birds, I carved the feathers individually. I’ve got a wire in the back holding the wings.” Bobwhite quail rounds out the upland game birds. Roy’s shelves also boast non-game species such as blue jay, blue grosbeak, painted bunting, hummingbird and Carolina wren.
The woodcarving task is rewarding, but time-consuming. “Take that turkey feather over, look at all the lines in it — seems like thousands; it gets monotonous making all of them.” Just how long an individual carving takes to complete “really depends on what the bird is doing. Those little birds on the shelf might take a week. One like that woodcock might take all year. And sometimes, I might not touch a project for a month. You know, you just piddle with it when you can.”
Roy began carving amid the pressures of raising a large family and building a successful construction company. “I carved to get away. Carving is just a potboiler — something to do. I love it! I don’t do it for the money; that’s for sure!” he reflects. “I started with game ducks. I really like mourning doves and shorebirds like this red knot sandpiper and oystercatcher.”
“I started carving with bass wood — Grainger gave me the first piece of it I ever used. A lot of it grows in Pennsylvania. It’s really sort of a trash tree, but the wood carves well; it is soft and light and it has a nice, tight grain,” he explains.
As a lifelong hunter, Roy pursued woodcarving as a way to continue thinking about birds once home from the field. Through his carvings, he proclaims a reverence and conservationist’s spirit for the wildlife he so dearly loves. As a sportsman and artist, Roy has sharpened a keen eye on the whetstone of the Lowcountry landscape.
“Now, when I see a bird, I have got to get up and see what it is. You know, you want to identify with them. I have gone on bird watches with Dr. Sid Gauthreaux, who taught ornithology at Clemson and leads bird walks on Edisto,” he says.
When pressed as to his favorite work, Roy muses: “I like my wild turkey feathers better than anything; I just really enjoy those. And people seem to be more interested in turkey feathers than anything else.”
While caribou hunting in northern Quebec, Roy became friends with Tom Smith, owner a taxidermist shop in Charlotte. “Tom had a feather FedExed to me from Mexico; it was an Oscillated turkey, found in the Southwest.” Additional subspecies of wild turkeys include Eastern, Osceola, Merriam’s, Gould’s and Rio Grande. “I’ve carved feathers for all six of the wild turkeys that live in the United States,” Roy declares.
The tools of the trade have changed during the nearly half a century Smoak has been carving. With an old band saw, Roy still rough-cuts the shape of the bird. “When I first started out, I mostly used an Old Timer pocketknife for the details. Back in the 70s, Grainger and Adair built me a big belt sander, which I still have,” he notes.
“Back then, Grainger would take a soldering iron and screw a razor blade to the tip; he made one for me, too. Not a lot of people were doing woodcarvings, so you had to use what you could. Nowadays, you can buy all sorts of tools from a place like this here,” he muses, picking up The Hummel Flier Wood Carving Supply Catalog from the kitchen table.
“I still carve a lot with my pocketknife — that same Old Timer. But we also use a Dremel tool; it’s got so many little attachments for sanding and grinding — to get in the nooks and crannies, you know. When it comes to fine details around the eyes, that Colwood Detailer burning tool works really well,” he says. For all of his birds, Roy orders museum-quality, glass eyes.
Elizabeth Allston Smoak, Roy’s wife of nearly 50 years, painted his carvings until her passing several years ago. This partnership was particularly appropriate, since Beth also painted the Lowcountry landscapes she knew so well: tucked-away sea island landmarks, tidal creeks and saltmarshes and beach scenes replete with shore birds. Thus, Beth brought a keen insight to painting the decorative decoys, which reflect the collaboration of distinct artists.
Though Roy pursues carving for a higher peace than profit, his handiwork has hardly gone unnoticed. The first piece ever purchased was a wigeon he donated to the Parker Tuten Field Day, a 1982 fundraiser on John’s Island. Soon after, in Carolina Rod & Gun, Roy displayed a green-winged teal that caught the eye of a Charleston physician.
Smoak sold a dove in flight at the Audubon Gallery in Charleston, where one of his Eastern wild turkey feathers is currently for sale. “In the 1980s, “I took that little green heron over there to the Waterfowl Championship of the World. Thousands of people were there and the bird was given honorable mention,” he remarks with a gentlemanly balance of humility and pride.
A few years ago, a woodcock of Roy’s was awarded “Best in Show” at the Lowcountry Senior Center Contest. He also has offered his turkey feathers to be auctioned in support of the Edisto Island Open Land Trust’s conservation efforts. In addition, Roy has given carvings to friends and family and as wedding presents and several people have commissioned him to create original works.
Currently, Roy is on a waiting list to secure a booth at the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, where he one day hopes to showcase his woodcarvings. His works range in price from “$500 to four figures, depending on how long they took” to create. To accentuate your own mantle with the impressive work of a genuine Lowcountry article, contact Roy Smoak at (843) 276-0981 or (843) 889-6492.