It started with a dull knife more than 70 years ago.
When Lloyd Radi, who turned 85 last month, was 11 years old, a relative from California gave him a carving knife. Although the blade was extremely worn down, he managed to carve a boat out of wood with it. He added a sail he made out of his aunt's old nylons, which were just coming into vogue around that time, and figured out just how the thing worked according to which direction the wind was coming from.
That dull knife led to a lifetime of creating thousands of figures out of wood and painting them. Although his primary concentration has been on animals, Radi has also made pull toys for kids, more boats and people – including a small statue of President Obama in fishing gear.
“It's really not that hard once you get into it,” he said of his hobby. “You learn as you go along. Sometimes I try different things that don't always work. It's good to see what other carvers do, too. You get some ideas from them.”
Radi, a lifelong Crookston area resident, has at least two boxes full of white, red, gold and blue ribbons that he took home for his carvings from fairs, including the Polk County Fair in Fertile, and wood-carving contests. He's also been a fixture at area fairs, gun shows and other venues for a number of years, selling his wares.
He's particularly proud of two Hamm's Bear carvings, embellished with pieces cut from Hamm's beer cans. A Hamm's dealer who was at a show about three years ago asked him to make one of the bears, which Radi set about doing.
“Well, gee, I hadn't seen one of those for a long time,” he said. “I had to look on the Internet for one. I think they turned out kind of nice. They're different.”
Radi's carvings range in size from small pheasant or fish pins to large owls, and he prices his works from $5 to $100.
He eventually got into making decoys and joined the National Fish Decoy Association 15 years ago. According to its website, the NFDA is “dedicated to the preservation of historical fish decoy carving and the sport of dark house fish spearing.” It adds, “You have not had fun until you've gone fish spearing.”
“There's not another club like it,” said Radi. “It's really something.”
Throughout the years, he's entered many of his hand-carved and painted decoys in NFDA World's Largest Fish Decoy Shows as well as selling them at booths. For the 2010-11 season, there were five shows, beginning with the first in Park Rapids held in November. Shows followed in Park Rapids, Grand Rapids, Brainerd and Alexandria, culminating with The Gathering in Perham April 16 and 17.
“People come from all over: Texas, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Canada, Minnesota, South and North Dakota,” said Radi. “There used to even be a couple of women from New York coming.”
Unlike regular woodcarvings, decoys have lead embedded into the bottom and need to be weighted just right to properly float, he explained. At competitions, “they throw them in the water upside down and then the decoys have to right themselves.”
After entering dozens of decoys in a variety of fish categories at this year's shows, Radi managed to rack up 1541 points, enough for a second-place finish in the Worlds Points Series, an impressive accomplishment considering the stiff competition he faced, according to Mark Fisketjon, a fellow member of Valley Woodcarvers Club that meets in Crookston.
“It's a nice plaque to hang on the wall,” Radi said humbly.
Pointing to a custom-made personalized photo book from last year's Gathering, Radi said a woman at the event offered to make it for him.
“And all she wanted was this pink alligator decoy,” he said. “What a deal.”