Carving a Niche
However, several of Costilow’s wooden decoys have found a home in his city hall office. And occasionally residents good-naturedly tease that the mayor has the community’s priorities straight — happy that he has his ducks in a row.
Costilow has been carving since 1989 and made his first duck decoy, a bufflehead, in 1993. (A significant population of the diving ducks can be found in Lake Erie near Kelleys Island.) As a teenager, Costilow made friends with a charter boat captain who enjoyed the craft.
“Unfortunately, my friend died at 45. I bought all his tools and started carving,” says Costilow. “I watched over his shoulder a lot and, although he didn’t have a real hand in teaching me, he had quite a bit to do with me carving.”
Costilow has created about 2,000 birds, mostly ducks, plus a few shorebirds and cardinals. He still owns 30 of his decoys, including the first three. Costilow uses a variety of wood, but especially likes tupelo from the bayous of Louisiana for its extra light properties and American basswood from the linden family of trees native to Ohio.
Costilow uses both hand and power tools to carve ducks that have won first, second or third Best of Show awards in prestigious competitions all over the United States. Those include the Ward World Championship Wildfowl Carving Competition and Art Festival in Ocean City, Maryland, (the largest and longest running waterfowl carving competition in the world) and the North American Wildfowl Carving Competition in Livonia, Michigan.
But one of his most memorable honors was when a likeness of his winning decoy at a carving competition was selected for a limited edition wine label in the Thousand Islands region in New York. The honor was also given in different years to his uncle and to his son, Luke, also both accomplished carvers.
As a youth, Costilow was hired to clean out an attic of an old house. The homeowner told Costilow he could have a big bag of old duck decoys found among the cobwebs. The ducks were “old, dusty and heavy,” recalls Costilow, who traded them for a couple of plastic decoys that he could more easily carry on his hunting trips.
“I didn’t know then how valuable vintage decoys could be,” says Costilow, adding that antique decoys by famous carvers and even unknown folk artists have sold for thousands of dollars.
“Even though decoys have become so lifelike, there are still little things that people do to them to make them unique,” says Costilow. “I taught carving for a while, and I can see my influence in some other people’s carvings. But you can’t take that uniqueness out of each carver’s work.”