by Dick Brust
Many wildfowl enthusiasts had been aware of John Jarosz through his taxidermy work at the James Ford Bell Museum on the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis. Francis Lee Jacques, the well-known artist who won the 1940 Federal Duck Stamp competition, painted the dioramas at the museum and John performed the taxidermy work. Some consider their joint effort to be among the finest in the world. But it wasn’t until the first meeting of the Minnesota Decoy Collectors Association in the early 1960s that I became aware of his miniature carvings.
John’s interest in nature and birds started early in life, when his mother bought him a miniature cast model of a Chinese ring-necked pheasant. “It was precious to me, better than any other toy,” he says. It enkindled an interest that he pursued for life.
“Bird watching intrigued me always,” he says. “The many species of birds and their habitats interested me so. “At age 14 he began hunting game birds in Minnesota. “I admired their beautiful feather patterns and colors so much that I wanted to preserve them,” he recalls.
With this motivation he learned the art of taxidermy at an early age, self-taught in all aspects and forms. To add to his talents he attended the Minnesota Commercial Art Academy to increase his skills as a painter, working in a variety of mediums. He hoped to “capture some of the beauty of these wild creatures.”
With the outbreak of World War II, Jarosz joined the U.S. Army/Air Force as a combat engineer in Europe. But while stationed in England he continued his interest in bird watching, bagging an “English Shelldrake” duck that he mounted and shipped to his parents as a gift. The mounted duck was intercepted by the U.S. Customs authorities and brought to the attention of Dr. Thomas Roberts, then Director of the University of Minnesota’s Museum of Natural History in the Twin Cities. The taxidermy work so impressed Dr. Roberts that after John returned from Europe he was hired as a staff member at the museum. This was the start of a long career, as he performed the duties of Taxidermist, Museum Preparator and Curator of exhibit works for 32 years.
Woodcarving, especially miniature birds, was an offshoot of this interest. Encouraged by a friend, he began carving miniature birds in 1954, striving to “capture their image” in wood. For a short while his carvings were sold at Crossroads of Sports in New York City - one of the major outlets for wildfowl miniaturists throughout North America - but soon realized he preferred making them for family and friends. “It has become a vital part of my life ever since,” he contends.
This self-taught woodcarver and painter has created over 1000 tiny sculptures, from songbirds to game birds and waterfowl, from hummingbirds to swans, in what is now nearly 50 years. And he’s not ready to quit.
As with any woodcarver, John first selects the wood, preferring red cedar, basswood and Honduran mahogany, sometimes carving eight to ten birds at a time. He enjoys the three-dimensional aspect of his miniatures, never interested in applying his talents to canvas or other flat surfaces. Each of John’s birds is custom made and no two are identical. He makes single birds or pairs by request and mounts them on oval locust bases.
John’s genius is best portrayed in the exquisite paint on his carvings, applied in meticulous detail without the aid of magnification. But a collector may want to apply this scrutiny, because only then can one appreciate the artistic effort put into these little beauties.
For many collectors, decoys and wildfowl carvings preserve the nostalgia of duck hunting, the memories of pleasant days spent in a blind. I began to buy John’s carvings with the intent of collecting a pair of every waterfowl - even occasional migrants on northern flights - native to Minnesota. Adding one bird every six months over a 35-year period, my collection has grown beyond my initial expectations, now including game birds from throughout North America. They may not have the cachet of an Elmer Crowell carving, but John’s unbelievable miniatures have provided me a source of great delight.
And I’m not the only collector lured by the miniature carvings of John Jarosz, as I’ve since discovered that several other Minnesotans have pursued the same path.
“I have followed my interest in nature by trying to preserve the glory of nature around us all,” John confidently adds. “Hopefully I have captured a small portion of this glory.” Without a doubt, he certainly has.
Dick Brust is one of the founders, and a present director of the Minnesota Decoy Collectors Association and the Minnesota Decoy Foundation.
For the complete story, please see the Sept./Oct. 2002 issue of Decoy Magazine.
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