Craftsman carves niche for holiday

Thursday, December 05, 2002

By BETH E. FAND

EDGEWATER PARK - Lately, Vincent Giannetto III has felt a lot like Forrest Gump.

The feeling hit Giannetto, an award-winning wood carver from Edgewater Park, when he was invited to craft an ornament for this year's White House Christmas tree. Yesterday, he joined artists from every state there for a reception hosted by first lady Laura Bush.

The fact that he contributed a sculpture to the tree that stands in the Blue Room did not stop Giannetto from comparing himself to the bumpkin of movie fame, who stumbled blindly into his brushes with greatness.

"I feel like Forrest Gump going to the White House," Giannetto, 59, said before he and his wife left for Washington, D.C. "It's a little foreign to my experiences."

The artist, who makes his living selling original duck decoys, Santa Claus and animal figurines and animal-shaped rockers for children, wasn't kidding.

It isn't every day that Giannetto, who conducts his life and work in the same quiet neighborhood where he was born, gets to mix with America's leaders. To find him accepting praise for his work is an occasion almost as rare.

Although Giannetto often exhibits his decoys alongside the work of other artists, he doesn't like to congratulate himself for his achievements. It's the reason he dreads the parties that often precede the shows.

"We will all walk around telling each other how wonderful we are," Giannetto says with a wry laugh. "You have to have some talent, but it's still a block of wood, and it's still a wooden duck."

Not everyone agrees.

The best-of-show award Giannetto won in September's Ocean County Decoy and Gunning Show is among myriad ribbons and trophies he has collected since he got his first citation ever, at a Long Island, N.Y., decoy show in 1967.

Even Giannetto has to admit he has a following of collectors who spend several hundred dollars at a time on his pieces. That's not to mention the students who look to him for guidance in the sawdust-filled studio behind his home and at the adult school at Rancocas Valley Regional High School in Mount Holly.

Despite all that, Giannetto was surprised to learn that the New Jersey State Council on the Arts had not only heard of him, but had submitted his name to Gov. James E. McGreevey's office as an artist qualified to contribute to the national tree.

One of nine participating artists from New Jersey, Giannetto was among nearly 400 to submit ornaments nationwide. Like his colleagues, he was asked to sculpt a bird indigenous to his home state.

Rather than choosing the state's official bird, the American goldfinch, Giannetto based his sculpture of a green merganser duck and her two hatching chicks on five baby ducks he had sculpted for his children when they were small.

"I had to pick something that was more `me,' " he said.

While everything Giannetto carves these days is for decoration, he tackled his first works for a more practical purpose: duck hunting. A teenager at the time, he decided to make some decoys after his father refused to give him enough money to buy any.

Giannetto was in his 20s when he began winning decoy shows. By the time he was 40, he was selling so many of the wooden birds that he decided to give up the masonry business he had run for 11 years.

"It got to the point where I was doing both badly," he said. "I have not had to pick up a trowel in the last 19 years."

Although his latest creation is getting national exposure, Giannetto will be barred from recreating it for customers: The one-of-a-kind ornament will become part of the White House's permanent collection.

The fact that the piece will remain forever in the hands of politicians doesn't bother Giannetto.

"Basically, all these presidents have the same things in mind," he said. "They just go about it in different ways."