Don Briddell was born in 1944 in Crisfield, Maryland. He began his art career in the second grade selling drawings for classmates, one cent for a black and white and three cents for color—business doesn't get any more basic than that! Back then Crisfield was a community of watermen making their living off the resources of the Chesapeake Bay. Don’s parents and extended family owned the manufacturing firm, Charles D. Briddell, incorporated in 1925 by Don’s grandfather. Between 1930 and 1963 the family company was a significant employer of many of the town’s people, making metal ware for the fishing industry before the war, military knives and bazooka rockets during WWII and Carvel Hall cutlery after the war. The company was sold to Towel Silver in 1963.
At thirteen years old Don's parents allowed him to duck hunt on his own. To duck hunt you either “walked the marsh” in hopes of stumbling upon a duck, or needed decoys were used. One summer Don found a very old French musket in his grandmother's attic in Castleton, Vermont, dating from the French and Indian wars. Don swapped the musket, too worn-out to shoot, to Lloyd Tyler, a trader in working decoys, for a dozen equally worn-out decoys that had been made by locals, who were themselves long gone.
Living in the “Downneck” section of Crisfield, a mile through the woods from Don’s home, were the world famous wildfowl carvers, Lem and Steve Ward. The Ward brothers began carving decoys in 1919, after Steve returned home from WWI, following the tradition of the region, which dated back to colonial times. In time, the Ward Brothers would become American icons, receiving the National Heritage Award, one of twelve given by President Ronald Reagan on behalf of the Smithsonian Institution. A decoy by the Wards that went for $1.50 in 1920, sold in recent years at auction for $95,000.
Don took the old decoys he had gotten from Lloyd Tyler to the Ward brothers and asked them what he could do to get them back into working condition. The Wards talked him through the job step by step, showed him a few tricks and sent him home to work on it. While working on them, a neighbor happened by and asked Don to fix his decoys. Before the summer was out, word got around that Don would fix up decoys cheaply and before he knew it, Don was in business. One day Lem asked Don why he didn’t try to make one from scratch. He gave Don a block of wood for the body and another for the head; thus began regular visits to the Ward workshop. Under their guidance, coupled with the influence of his manufacturing family, Don learned the skills that would set the stage for his work life.
The first decoys Don sold were $5.00 each. He did half-size miniatures for $2.50 and quarter-size for $1.50. Hundreds were made. On a business trip to New York City, Don’s dad took him along. Crossroads of Sports and Abercrombie and Fitch in Manhattan commissioned the fifteen year old Don to produce working decoys for them. To keep up with demand Don hired his friends to help in his first business called “Chesapeake Wildfowl Decoys”. Proceeds from the business went into buying a Mercury outboard motor and when he turned sixteen, into fixing up his beloved hot rod 1953 Studebaker coupe.
Once college began at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY, where Don got a degree in Industrial Design, he would only carve in the summers. The family, meanwhile, sold their business and moved to western Maryland. There, in Oakland, Don opened a workshop with his college roommate on the second floor of an old building that overlooked the train station. That summer of 1963 would be the last time he made waterfowl decoys until returning to the States in 1975.
On graduation from college, Don served two and a half years in the Peace Corps as an arts and crafts developer in Ecuador. In 1969 Don married Victoria Moo Moller from South Africa, and after Peace Corps they traveled the world living out of backpacks. Going by freighter from San Francisco, to Japan, to Malaysia and then to India, they spent a year in the Himalayas at Sivananda Ashram studying Yoga and Vedanta under the tutelage of the great Indian sages Swami Chidananda and Swami Krishnananda.
From India, Don and Victoria went to South Africa, where Don designed portable fiberglass housing for the recreational industry and the army. The design won the “Product of the Year” award from the S.A. Industrial Design Society. Returning to the States in 1975, Don did carpentry and renovated houses until discovering in his parent’s basement a couple of boxes filled with half-finished decoys and his carving and painting equipment. Not having two dimes to rub together, Don fixed them up and took them to a fair. They all sold and he took orders. His old love for the art form rekindled and in a short time he was carving again full-time at his studio in Dallastown, PA – this time under the name of “Wood Mountain Makings”.
The move to Maryland in 1979 came after Three-Mile Island nuclear accident. Victoria and Don had bought property near the reactor and when the call came to evacuate, they left. Getting out a map of the East Coast and drawing 75-mile circles around all the reactors on the map, they looked for a place to live outside those danger zones. They found a rural property between Mt. Airy and Frederick, Maryland that has been home and business ever since.
Art and crafts, though not as spectacular as technology, have provided gainful and meaningful employment. The arts give enjoyment in quiet ways both to the maker and the buyer, and that seems like an honorable thing to do. Nobody needs art to keep them alive, although the Ward Brothers used to burn their decoys to keep warm during the depression. When a civilization is remembered, such as the Renaissance, do we remember the bankers, the generals, the popes and kings? No, we remember the artists, Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Raphael.
Bird art may not be considered fine art, but everyone from all walks of life can enjoy it. Particularly in the United States nature is highly regarded. It is precious to us and we lead the world in trying to conserve and protect it. Let us never forget that Nature is our connection to life. As one of Overboard Art’s pieces called “Sanctuary” states, “Human Nature (is) protecting Mother Nature”. Protecting Mother Nature in America is understood as a form of self-protection.
In 1985 several developments came together to convince Don that it was time to found Overboard Art. He became aware of the amazing ability of specially designed resins that could reproduce exactly the finest detail of a woodcarving. The reproduced piece was not as expensive to make as a woodcarving and yet when expertly painted, could rival the quality of the original.
“The artist is commissioned to produce the images with which a people and eventually a culture, identify. It is the artist’s job to find those images and with a supportive community, bring them forward.”