They call it the Duck Stamp: the proceeds of the US government’s only juried art competition and the source of over a billion dollars to help preserve wildlife refuges.
The stamp, part of the duck hunter licensing process, was the subject of an award-winning documentary and a satire by comedian-turned-newscaster John Oliver chronicling the eccentricities of artists who flock to the competition. This created a market for collectors interested not only in stamps but also in prints.
And it’s spawned state-level contests for adults and children from coast to coast, including the Connecticut Duck Stamp and Connecticut Junior Duck Stamp programs.
Nationally acclaimed sports artist Chet Reneson of Lyme said he was Connecticut’s first contest winner to come from the state himself when his pair of black scoters were featured on the state’s stamp in 2018. The competition at the time was open to everyone. on the country.
Reneson, 87, said it annoys him that out-of-state performers are the ones who consistently put their mark on Connecticut’s curriculum. He also didn’t like seeing junior-level participants being eclipsed by professionals.
“There was no encouragement for a young child,” Reneson said. “It was stolen by so-called professional artists.”
He decided to lobby the Connecticut Waterfowl Association and the state to change the rules so that only state residents 18 and under are allowed to participate. The change came in 2019, eliminating the Adult Stamp Contest.
Now, each state duck stamp will feature an image created by a young artist.
Any Connecticut duck hunter who has reached the age of 16 must purchase a $25 stamp from the federal government and anyone over the age of 12 must purchase a $17 stamp from the Department of Energy and Protection of the state environment. The stamps are available to the general public, so collectors and conservationists can also take them home.
Proceeds go to protecting wetland habitats at both levels. Nationally, the Duck Stamp program has raised $1.1 billion since 1934. In Connecticut, the state version of the program has raised more than $1.7 million since the early 1990s.
The winner of the state stamp is then entered into the federal Junior Duck Stamp competition. Artists who win the US Duck Stamp Contest do not receive cash prizes, but it can be lucrative for them to sell prints of their designs. Reproductions of the state duck stamp are available from DEEP for $200 to benefit conservation efforts.
Sophie Archer, 18, of Old Lyme painted the male wood duck on the current stamp. The Connecticut Waterfowl Association announced this week that it won the Connecticut Junior Duck Stamp competition again this year for its painting of an Atlantic Brent Goose on the shore, which will appear on the 2023 stamp.
Archer, who specializes in acrylic painting, began participating in the program when she was in kindergarten as a student at the Barn for Artistic Youth, an art school in the Niantic section of East Lyme.
She said in an email that she chooses her subjects based primarily on beauty. But she also looks at artistic factors, such as color and the amount of detail in their unique features.
“I love painting those tiny hair-like feathers, so if I find one where those feathers are prominent, I’m all for it,” she said.
disconnected from nature
Min Huang, head of DEEP’s migratory bird program and chairman of the state Duck Stamp committee, said education is an important part of the Duck Stamp program. This is crucial because the younger generation has lost touch with the outdoors, according to Huang.
“If you just look at trends in hunting licenses, fishing licenses, general outdoor activity participation, there’s been a total erosion of that,” he said.
Statistics provided by Huang show that there were 407 hunting licenses issued to 13-year-olds in 2009, down from 60 in 2021. The disparity is less marked as hunters age, with 593 licenses issued to 13-year-olds. 25 years in 2009 compared to 412 last year.
Huang pointed out that technology that allows children to stay focused on their computer and smartphone screens is a big factor in the deterioration of their connection with nature. He said the prevalence of organized sports means children are spending more time training and playing than they spend outdoors.
Archer said children learn to find joy in manufactured entertainment instead of beauty on the outside. She described it as a system “that works against nature”.
“I think the Duck Stamp is a wonderful way for children to find an authentic way to connect with nature and hopefully inspire a sense of responsibility to protect our natural systems that will continue into old age. adult,” she said. “I fear for the future of our society where the love of nature is not cultivated.”
Rich Chmiel, East Lyme resident, Connecticut Waterfowl Association board member and state Duck Stamp contest judge, has been hunting and fishing since childhood.
“Young people are really losing touch with the outdoors,” he said. “When I was young, all the kids would go fishing or hunting or whatever. They were outside. They were doing things.”
For Chmiel, the connection between art and waterfowl is evident in the duck decoys he carves, which are used by hunters to lure the real thing. “You start with a block of wood,” he said of his artistic process. “Anything that’s not a duck, you take it out.”
It judges Duck Stamp’s submissions for design elements such as visual appeal and anatomical accuracy, he said. He also enjoys seeing Connecticut landmarks, like the Saybrook Pier and Lighthouse featured in Reneson’s 2018 winning entry.
The competition is open from early February to mid-March and there is no entry fee.
The barn for artistic youth submitted the designs of 43 students for this year’s competition, according to director Jan Ayer Cushing. Pupil Madeline Elgart, 13, from Old Saybrook won third place in the seventh to ninth grade category and Sofia Matute, 12, from East Lyme won third place in the fourth grade category in the sixth year.
Matute said the merganser duck caught his eye when a dozen stuffed and mounted waterfowl were spread out on a table in the barn. “It really stuck with me; it looked really nice too,” she said. “I really liked the brown color he had and the eye shape was unique.”
She said she decided to use watercolor paint because the medium complemented the lake setting of her design.
“Preserving Their Prey”
Connecticut Waterfowl Association President Tom Lewoc Jr. acknowledged the campy popularity of the Duck Stamp program. He said artists could at one time get over $1 million for a print before the bubble burst in the 1980s.
There was also controversy.
According to Audubon magazine, the administration of then-President Donald Trump in 2019 made “Celebrating Our Waterfowl Hunting Heritage” the theme of the current contest and required that every entry include hunting images.
HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” last year tackled the controversy by submitting several tongue-in-cheek cartoons, including a menacing duck pointing a shotgun at a hunter – which sold at auction for $16,100 – as well as a riff on the pixelated, 80s Nintendo video game Duck Hunt which grossed $33,200. Oliver donated the proceeds to the federal government to help conserve migratory bird habitats in national wildlife refuges.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service has since reversed changes made by the Trump administration to the rules of the contest.
None of the comedy show’s submissions got a single vote, but Lewoc described publicity and charitable donations as a win.
According to DEEP, proceeds from Duck Stamp at the state level have been used to restore more than 3,145 acres of wetlands and purchase 75 acres of critical wildlife habitat. Funds also covered large equipment to carry out major marsh restoration work, particularly along the coast.
Sophie Archer said one of the lessons she learned through the state Junior Duck Stamp program revolves around the inextricable connection between hunting and conservation.
“If it weren’t for my participation in the program, I also wouldn’t have realized how loyal and enthusiastic hunters are to preserve their prey,” she said.