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Carving out his niche

Woodcarver Snook Barrett with one of his pieces.

For an artist, every stroke of a brush or mark with a pencil is done with precision.

In the case of a carver, it's every cut. Osakis' Duane "Snook" Barrett knows all about the thought that goes into every shaving of wood that falls to his feet. He also knows what it feels like to see a finished product that he is proud to put his name on.

Barrett began carving in the early 1960s out of necessity more than curiosity.

"I started about 1961 when I got out of the service," he said. "I got married right away and had a kid so then I needed some duck decoys to go duck hunting. So they told me to go down and see John Tax, and he would show me how to carve duck decoys, so I did."

Tax, an Osakis resident for almost his entire life, was well known for his lifelike duck and goose decoys. Barrett studied his habits and learned this unique trade himself.

It would be almost 20 years later before he realized his most sought after work would not be his decoys. Barrett meddled in spear decoy carvings in the 1970s before becoming serious about the craft in the early 80s.

It was then that his unique wood-burning style of fish carvings began to catch on. Barrett has carved hundreds of fish since then. Sunfish, crappies, walleyes, northerns, muskies and bullheads - he has carved them all. Today, each one is carved from basswood and has the definitions of the gills and fins marked with a wood-burning tool before he finishes the art with a polyurethane coat.

"One time I started talking about painting them and I caught heck," he said. "'Don't you dare, your style is wood burning,' which nobody else did."

Barrett still carves spearing and waterfowl decoys, depending on what people are looking for. And right now, people are definitely still looking.

Not even two broken vertebrae have kept Barrett from taking orders. That injury, which happened earlier this year after missing a step at the bottom of his stairs, has kept him from carving since early June.

But requests for his work keep coming. He has a total of around $1,000 worth of carvings to complete right now. His larger walleyes will sell for $200 apiece. A 16-inch walleye will sell for $100, with duck and goose decoys going for $100 and $200, respectively.

"Guys keep telling me I don't charge enough," he said. "So I keep upping the price, and they keep ordering them."

The buyers have come from all over. Barrett has sent his work to California and Maryland, even to New Zealand.

"Somebody told me once that they were out in Phoenix and I guess they went to a flea market and there was one of my walleyes out there," he said. "Who knows how it got there?"

Barrett has never had to do any advertising to get his name out there. Anyone who knows about the small-town carver has learned about him by word of mouth. His work speaks for itself among collectors, and he has seen just how valuable that can be.

Barrett has watched prices soar for the work of his teacher since his death in 1967. Some of Tax's duck and goose decoys have sold for more than $100,000 at auction in recent years. Barrett does not know if his work will ever be viewed in the same light as Tax's. If it is, he is confident he will not be the one reaping the financial benefits of that.

"I get that all the time," he said. "[It would be] after I'm dead. Poor John. He lived in an older house in town, and he really didn't have a heck of a lot. Of course, back when I was growing up, everyone was poor, but we didn't think that."

He still doesn't think like that. He worked at 3M in Alexandria for 27 years before retiring at 59. Now 72, he has filled his retirement years with simple things in life - family, fishing, and of course, carving.

"I've enjoyed it," he said. "I will be carving a spearing decoy or one walleye after another and finally I will do a sunfish or carve something else. On duck decoys, I carve heads separate, so sometimes in the summertime, I will just sit outside on the picnic table and carve duck heads."

The end result is a finished product to be admired for the craftsmanship put into it.