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Father-daughter Federal Duck Stamp winners to be at Biggest Week

The love of nature and a skill in art run deep in the Grimm family. Elyria native Adam Grimm and his daughter Madison, age 7, each took first place in the 2013 Federal Duck Stamp Contests for their age categories and have both received the honor of having their paintings appear on this year’s duck stamps. 

The Federal Duck Stamp Contest is nothing new to professional wildlife artist Adam Grimm. His 1999 contest-winning painting for the special 2000 Millennial Federal Duck Stamp kicked off his professional painting career at age 21 and also made him the youngest person to have ever won the federal contest. 

Grimm takes the competition very seriously. Although there is no monetary prize for winning, the prestige and notoriety associated with the contest can provide a plethora of career opportunities for the wildlife artist, enough to justify the months of work that can go into creating a painting worthy of entering. 

“Since the 1999 competition, I’ve gotten fourth place a number of times, a fifth place and I got second place the one year, but I just didn’t quite hit it right where the judges picked it to win, and that’s just the way it goes sometimes,” he said.

Not only did Grimm and his daughter win the federal contests, he also won this year’s Ohio Wetlands Habitat Stamp contest with his painting of a Northern Pintail in flight.

“It’s a great honor and just a neat thing to have both,” he said. “The way it came together was really just almost divine in nature.”

There is a lot more that goes into painting wildlife than most people realize, Grimm said. Only five species are eligible each year for the Federal Duck Stamp Competition; artists who choose to use a photo as reference may only use unpublished ones. Most artists start collecting as many good unpublished photographs of eligible species as they can years ahead of time so they are prepared for future competitions, Grimm said. 

He added being a successful wildlife painter is not just about an ability to paint; artists have to have good detailed references, so it’s helpful to be an accomplished photographer, birder and outdoorsman as well. 

“I go out to take pictures just about every sunny day this time of year,” Grimm explained in a telephone interview from his Burbank, SD, home. “I was out this morning and I’ll probably go back out this evening and probably tomorrow as well. It’s like a non-stop quest trying to get the best references you can get. The first thing you have to do to prepare for the competition is to choose which species to paint,” he said. “I knew most people would want to paint Mallards, and I don’t usually like to paint the species that I think most of the other people are going to paint. Canvasbacks, I figured, would probably be the second most popular bird,” he said. “They’re a beautiful bird and I have a lot of fond memories about Canvasbacks from past experiences, so I really wanted to paint them but I didn’t really have a lot of very good references.”

He had little luck trying to get good photo references near his home; and when his daughter Madison won the Federal Junior Duck Stamp contest with a Canvasback on the water, he realized just how limited his references were for that year. “I was thinking, ‘I don’t want to do a Canvasback on the water now because I don’t want it to look anything like what she won with,’” he said.

A friend of Grimm’s suggested they drive a few hours away and spend a week or so trying to get better reference photos. “I talked to some Division of Fish and Game people and they said that there are definitely some areas that have a lot more birds of that species, so I found out where and we just went on a drive trying to find the birds,” he said.

After stopping at a number of locations, they found what they affectionately coined “Canvasback Lake.”

“It’s a lot, a lot of work, way more work than I think most people would ever think that it is,” he said. “I mean, we had boats, we had the decoys, the waders, the camouflage and all of the camera supply stuff.” The pair would set up before daylight, take a break midday to recharge the cameras and go back in the evening for more, Grimm said. Fortunately, all the hard work paid off, and he left after five days with more than 4,000 photos of Canvasbacks and some good photos of other species of birds as well.

“It was incredible. I mean, there were hundreds of Canvasbacks on that lake and I don’t even think it was a full mile from where we were sleeping at night,” he said.

Grimm picked his best reference of standing, swimming and flying Canvasbacks and polled friends and family on their favorites. “I wound up going with the standing option. It had the standing drake and the swimming hen and it is what I ended up painting for the contest,” he said. 

The 2013 contest was held in September at the Maumee Bay Conference Center in Oregon, and being a native of Elyria, it was a great opportunity for Grimm to attend, and to visit family and friends. In addition, there was a documentary about the duck stamp competition called “The Million Dollar Duck” being filmed and the producers of the film were trying to get all the artists to come.

“I had been to a contest once before when I was competing, and I thought after that I didn’t want to go to any more contests; it was just too stressful and that was when I got fourth place. I almost felt like if I go, I’ll jinx it. At first, I was on pins and needles sitting there,” he said. “At the end of the final round, my 85-year-old grandma was sitting a couple rows in front of us, and I look over and I see her dabbing her eyes with a piece of tissue. Janet, my wife, looked over at me and said ‘I think you won,’” Grimm recalls.

 “It was exciting to be there. My dad was sitting immediately to my left with my mom beside him. My wife was sitting on my right and the kids were on our laps and my sister was there. My aunt and a number of friends that I know from Ohio that lived in the area had come out for it too. Not only was it a funny thing to win, but winning the same year that my daughter won and then we end up winning with the same species, which was remarkable,” he said. “She has the youngest-ever title for the junior contest and my youngest title for the Federal is still standing, and then on top of all of those things the whole incredible thing was basically captured in this documentary that is coming out I think later this year. It’s really just all incredible.”

Madison has not only sold her winning painting and made national headlines as the youngest artist to have ever won the Federal Junior Stamp Contest but she has sold other paintings as well and also took commissions for new paintings.

“I heard that there was a contest and I really wanted to do what my Dad does, so I wanted to enter it – that’s kind of what started it,” she said.

Madison started the painting when she was 5. “It took a little over a year I think because I took a little break in between and I couldn’t get to work on it right away,” she said.

The home-schooled young artist plans to continue painting, exploring wildlife, and hopes to one day become a biologist. Asked if she likes birds, she said, “I love them, they are one of my favorite things.” 

Birdwatching is a daddy-daughter event, explains Madison. “She gets pretty excited about seeing the warblers when we come (to the Biggest Week in American Birding); I know she’s been reading about the different ones,” he said. “I mean we get some of the common ones here but we don’t see nearly the variety as seen down there.”

Ninety-nine cents of every $1 spent on the Duck Stamp goes to acquire habitats for birds. Stamps are available at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory gift shop or online at www.bsbobird.org. It is estimated that sales of the $15 stamp raise $25 million each year for wetland habitat conservation efforts.

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