Artists from the Lymes put their stamp on wildlife conservation
They call it the Duck Stamp: the product of the U.S. government's only juried art competition and the source of more than $1 billion to help preserve wildlife refuges.
The stamp, which is roughly the size of a dollar bill and is carried as part of the required licensing for duck hunters, has been the subject of an award-winning documentary and a satire by comedian-turned-news-anchor John Oliver tracking the eccentricities of the artists who flock to the competition. It created a market for collectors interested not only in the stamps but in prints.
And it spawned state-level contests for adults and children from coast to coast, including the Connecticut Duck Stamp and Connecticut Junior Duck Stamp programs.
Nationally renowned sporting artist Chet Reneson of Lyme said he was the first winner of the Connecticut contest to hail from the state itself when his pair of black scoter ducks was featured on the state stamp in 2018. The competition at the time was open to people all over the country.
Reneson, 87, said it rankled him that out-of-state artists were the ones consistently putting their stamp on Connecticut's program. He also didn't like to see the participants at the junior level being upstaged by professionals.
"There was no encouragement for a young kid," Reneson said. "It was being stolen by the so-called professional artists."
He decided to lobby the sponsoring Connecticut Waterfowl Association and the state to change the rules so that only residents of the state and who are 18 years old and younger are allowed to participate. The change went through in 2019, eliminating the adult stamp contest.
Now every state Duck Stamp going forward will feature an image created by a young artist.
Any duck hunter in Connecticut who's reached the age of 16 needs to purchase a $25 stamp from the federal government and everyone over the age of 12 must buy a $17 stamp from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. The stamps are available to the general public, so collectors and conservationists can take them home, too.
Proceeds go toward protecting wetland habitats at both levels. Nationally, the Duck Stamp program has raised $1.1 billion dollars since 1934. In Connecticut, the state version of the program has generated more than $1.7 million since the early 1990s.
The state stamp winner goes on to be entered in the federal Junior Duck Stamp contest. Artists who win the U.S. Duck Stamp contest don't get a cash prize, 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.
Old Lyme's Sophie Archer, 18, painted the male wood duck on the current stamp. The Connecticut Waterfowl Association this week announced she won the Connecticut Junior Duck Stamp contest again this year for her painting of an Atlantic brant 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, DEEP's migratory bird program leader and the chairman of the state Duck Stamp committee, said education is an important part of the Duck Stamp program. That's crucial because the younger generation has been losing touch with the outdoors, according to Huang.
"If you just look at the trends in hunting licenses, fishing licenses, general participation in outdoor activities, there's been a full erosion of that," he said.
Statistics provided by Huang show there were 407 hunting licenses issued to 13-year-olds in 2009, compared to 60 in 2021. The disparity is less stark the older the hunters get, with 593 licenses issued to 25-year-olds in 2009 compared to 412 last year.
Huang pointed to technology that keeps kids focused on their computer and smartphone screens as a big factor in their deteriorating connection with nature. He said the prevalence of organized sports means kids spend more time at practice and games than they spend out in the open.
Archer said kids are being taught to find joy in manufactured entertainment instead of the beauty outdoors. She described it as a system "that works against nature."
"I feel that 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 through adulthood," she said. "I fear for the future of our society where a love of nature is not being cultivated."
East Lyme resident Rich Chmiel, a member of the Connecticut Waterfowl Association board of directors and a judge for the state Duck Stamp contest, has been hunting and fishing since he was a kid.
"The youth are really losing contact with the outdoors," he said. "When I was young, every kid went 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 attract the real thing. "You start with a block of wood," he said of his artistic process. "Everything that's not a duck, you remove it."
He judges Duck Stamp submissions for design elements such as eye appeal and anatomical correctness, he said. He also likes to see Connecticut landmarks, like the Saybrook Jetty and Lighthouse featured in Reneson's 2018 winning piece.
The contest is open from the beginning of February through mid-March and there is no entry fee.
The Barn for Artistic Youth submitted designs from 43 students for this year's contest, according to director Jan Ayer Cushing. Student Madeline Elgart, 13, of Old Saybrook won third place in the grade seven to nine category and Sofia Matute, 12, of East Lyme won third place in the grade four to six category.
Matute said the merganser duck caught her eye when a dozen stuffed and mounted waterfowl were spread out on a table in the barn. "It really stood out to me; it looked really nice, too," she said. "I really liked the color of brown that it 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 kitschy popularity of the Duck Stamp program. He said artists at one point could get more than $1 million for a reproduction print before the bubble burst in the 1980s.
There's also been controversy.
According to Audubon Magazine, the administration of then-President Donald Trump in 2019 made "Celebrating our Waterfowl Hunting Heritage" the ongoing contest theme and required every entry to include hunting imagery.
HBO's "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" last year tackled the controversy by submitting several tongue-in-cheek designs, including a menacing duck aiming a shotgun at a hunter — which sold at auction for $16,100 — as well as a riff on the pixelated, '80s-era Duck Hunt Nintendo video game that brought in $33,200. Oliver donated the proceeds to the federal government to help conserve migratory bird habitats at national wildlife refuges.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service since has overturned the Trump administration's changes to the contest rules.
None of the comedy show's submissions got a single vote, but Lewoc described the publicity and charitable donations as a win.
According to DEEP, Duck Stamp proceeds at the state level have been used to restore more than 3,145 acres of wetlands and to purchase 75 acres of critical wildlife habitat. Funds also covered large equipment to conduct extensive marsh restoration work, particularly along the coast.
Sophie Archer said one of the lessons she's learned through the state Junior Duck Stamp program revolves around the inextricable link between hunting and conservation.
"If it weren't for being involved in the program, I also would not have realized how loyal and enthusiastic hunters are about preserving their prey," she said.