William J. Koelpin Sr., Wisconsin Decoy Carver, Artist and Conservationist

Decoy Corner Article by Bruce Urben, President

All photos courtesy Bill Koelpin, Jr.

Koelpin Sr. carving “Mandarins” decoys

Back in April, I wrote an article about a contemporary decoy carver and artist, Bill Koelpin, Jr.. Bill Jr.’s artistic life was influenced early by his Dad – William J. Koelpin, Sr., a decoy carver, internationally celebrated artist, avid hunter, fisherman and conservationist.

Bill Koelpin, Sr. was born in 1938 and grew up just outside of Milwaukee, WI in Wauwatosa. Bill Sr. taught himself, through field studies and several life drawing classes in college. Early in life, Bill Sr. enjoyed observing the habits and activities of wildlife, which resulted in a strong appreciation of nature and, subsequently, a creative interest in American Sporting Art. He often painted and carved during his downtime as a professional firefighter. Bill Sr. became a full time artist in 1974, shortly after selling all of his work at a Midwest Carver Collectors meeting!

Koelpin Sr.s merganser painting, “Lucky Lady”

Bill Sr. had a definite relationship for the dwindling natural resources and the then-current concern for the preservation of our forests and wildlife. Bill, Sr. reminded people of the beauty of nature in each and every carving, bronze sculpture and painting he did. He relied on his own field sketches, clay models and measurements from study skins when he began a carving project. Each piece was an accurate depiction of the model being portrayed, whether a carved decoy, oil painting or bronze sculpture.

Bill, Sr. used many tools in his carving, including knives, gouges, rasps, chisels and even power tools! He was one of the first carvers to experiment with various methods of texturing his wood decoys before painting. He painted his decoys with both acrylic and oils, but seemed to prefer oil.

Koelpin, Sr.’s guy poling bronze, “Opening Day”

Bill was nationally acclaimed decoy carver. His credits include:

  • Best in World Award in Salisbury, Md.,
  • the Certificate of Excellence – Philadelphia Wildlife Exhibition,
  • Best Carver in the Country – Birmington Museum of Art,
  • Premier Artist – Leigh-Yawkey-Woodson Art Museum,
  • Master of the Guild – International Wood Carvers Guild
  • DU Artist of the Year, and
  • numerous First Place and Best Of Show awards

Koelpin, Sr.’s Barneget Bay skiff bronze “Storm Warning”

He carved just about every species of waterfowl, shorebirds, upland game and raptors. As mentioned, his decoys were always carved with his devotion to anatomical accuracy, realism and detail, which made his work a standard in American Sporting Art.

Most of  Bill’s decoys were commissioned and are now in collections or in museums. However, I have seen some of his decoys on the sporting auction circuit occasionally. Most of his decoys are valued in the $500-$5000 range. All of his decoys, bronzes, prints and carvings are a wise investment and are sure to increase in value.

Bill Koelpin, Sr. passed away in 1996 at the age of 58 after having been an active full-time artist since 1974. Bill Sr. is certainly considered to be a Wisconsin Original and in the same company of Leopold, Gromme and Muir. If you have a Koelpin, Sr. decoy, enjoy the work of a classic Wisconsin decoy carver.

My only regret from this article is that I was not able to have met Bill Koelpin, Sr. He is sadly missed by his family and friends.

Special thanks to Bill Koelpin, Jr. and his family for this article as well as to the North American Decoy Magazine (Spring 1973 edition).