CONWAY — Vernon Ballay is a relative newcomer to Conway, moving to the city in 2008. He was born in the Cajun fishing village of Bayou Gauche, La., which is part of the St. Charles Parish of New Orleans. It was there he learned to fish for crabs, operate a house jack and carve wooden duck decoys.
It was his experience with the house jack that would lead to a career in the construction business.
“I jacked up houses for 31 years,” he said with a laugh, noting that he also served as an engineer on a tugboat for 29 years. “I retired in 2007.”
Ballay, now 73, learned to carve duck decoys in 1977 by watching a friend in the village and by teaching himself. He has honed his craft over the years, winning awards for his work, which has expanded from carving ducks to carving other birds, fish and dolls. He even makes furniture that “looks old” by adding wormholes and creating dovetail joints “by eye.” Recently, he has tried his hand at making jewelry and mosaics, and now he wants to work with stained glass and glass etching. He also reupholsters furniture and paints on canvas.
It is this love of creating something with his hands that fuels his passion.
“It’s a curse,” he said, laughing. “You can’t put it down.”
Work on one piece quickly leads to other ideas, which have to be tried.
“I see something I want to do and challenge myself to do it,” he said. “I’m always pushing myself.”
Ballay built a two-story workshop behind the house he shares with his fiancée, Betty Boudreaux, who is also from New Orleans. A walk inside the shop leads to tables filled with his work — both finished and in progress. An ivory-billed woodpecker sits among the finished pieces, sporting a blue ribbon Ballay received as the first-place winner in the three-dimensional category of the recent Conway League of Artists Tri-County Show at the Faulkner County Library in Conway. Among the unfinished pieces is one that features various fish around pieces of coral.
Ballay works from a variety of books he has collected over the years, ones that feature photographs of ducks and fish that he uses as models for his work. He carves mainly from tupelo wood that he harvests in the swamps of Louisiana; he also works with basswood. He draws the duck or fish on paper, cuts the wood into blocks and places the drawings upon the blocks. He then begins to carve. He uses a variety of tools — hammer, chisel, saw, hatchet — creating the sculpture in much the same way as carvers have done for years. Once a piece is finished, Boudreaux helps create the final appearance by burning in the feathers or fins with a burning iron. Ballay completes the piece by painting it, often using several coats to obtain just the right color.
“I’ve got to be in the mood to work,” Ballay said when asked if he works every day. “If I’m not in the mood, it ain’t turning out right, and it’s going to be a reject.
“I start with chaos, and all of a sudden, I take three or four slices into the wood, and it starts to take shape. I say to myself, ‘Now, I’ve got it.’
“This is what I do. This is what drives me nuts. I’ve got to be pushing myself all the time. Once I know I can do it, I drop it like a hot potato and go on to something new.”
Ballay said one of his proudest artistic accomplishments is a peddler’s doll he made for his daughter about 10 years ago. He said a peddler’s doll is reminiscent of dolls that were sold centuries ago in England by door-to-door salesmen.
“That doll won Best of Show in a national doll show in New Orleans,” he said proudly.
Ballay makes frequent trips back to Louisiana, where both his daughter and his son live; he also has two granddaughters.
“I’ll be making dolls for my granddaughters,” he said.
While in Louisiana, Ballay was represented by an art gallery that sold many of his sculptures. He is not affiliated with any gallery now but hopes to sell his works by “word of mouth.”