MORRIS – Tony Zullo spends hours in a section of his Morris garage painstakingly carving by hand a piece of wood into a work of art.
Zullo is a local artist who has set out to put Morris on the map when it comes to Illinois River decoy carvers. The hunting decoys over the years have turned into collectibles made by true artists.
“The Illinois River valley has rich traditions with decoy carvers,” Zullo said. “If I can stick Morris on the map, I’ll be more than happy.”
He has been working toward this goal for 22 years after a hunting friend moved to the area and had been carving his own decoys.
“My first carvings looked like dinosaurs, they were that bad,” Zullo said. “It’s just something I didn’t give up and just kept working at.”
It took him six months to create something that he really liked from a block of wood.
Illinois River artists, such as Charles Perdew, are steeped in tradition and their duck calls and decoys sell to collectors for thousands of dollars, and it’s said that no collection is complete without at least one of Perdew’s carvings.
It’s Perdew’s style of carving that Zullo strives for with each piece.
“When you start out you have to ask, whose style are you going to follow?” Zullo said. “Charles Perdew is one of the more famous Illinois carvers and I’ve followed his style while including some of my own carving styles and painting styles.”
Joe Tonelli owner of Fish-N-Fowl Antiques in Spring Valley said Zullo has a style all of his own.
“Most people carve a duck to look like a duck,” Tonelli said. “Tony makes it to look like a decoy.
“If people walk in and see it, they can say that’s a Tony Zullo. He has talent to burn.”
Zullo creates his art using everything from construction grade wood to cedar, and said his favorite wood to work with is white-cedar or sugar pine.
“The hardest part is finding a piece of wood that is clear enough, without knots,” he said. “I like the softer wood, it’s easier to work with.”
He started out creating the decoys because of his love for hunting and fishing, but now he creates much more than decoys. He keeps his love of hunting and fishing alive in each of his pieces as he’s expanded to miniatures, plaques and even jewelry boxes.
The themes remain consistent portraying fish, pheasants, ducks and geese.
“Fish take the longest to make because you have to carve every scale and inset each fin, which is carved separately,” he said.
He takes his wares to decoy shows like the Midwest Decoy Collectors Association show in St. Charles, as well as selling online.
“Tony’s fish are far superior to even his decoys.” Tonelli said. “It’s also more rare. For every guy that carves a fish there are ten that carve decoys.”
In 2001, Zullo sold a large mouth bass plaque at the St. Charles show, which ended up at an auction in 2013 at the Copley Fine Art Auction House in Boston. The auction house specializes in antique decoys and 19th and 20th century American, sporting and wildlife paintings.
“It made me feel great to see my work get in to Copley,” Zullo said. “It’s hard to get in there, basically you have to be dead to get into the Copley Fine Art Auction House.”
The large mouth bass plaque is described on their auction site as “A 20-inch-wide, relief-carved, fish plaque. The carving exhibits a glass eye and intricately carved gill, fin, and scale detail. Signed by the maker on the back. Original paint with a tight surface age crack on one end.”
His one time hobby, has now turned into a business and he has enough buyers that most pieces are gone as fast as he can make them.
Like many artists, creating happens with his mood. Sometimes he feels like carving, other times he feels like painting and he works on pieces as he feels the calling.
His workroom is littered with boxes containing parts of art that are yet to be created. One box is filled with duck heads, another shelf has the starts of miniatures.
“Basically, it’s whatever you feel like making,” Zullo said. “If you feel like carving you carve, if you feel like painting you paint.”
With collector’s paying thousands of dollars for the works of the Illinois River artists, Zullo hopes to one day pass on his collection to his children to help them.