Clay Connor can recall sketching Canadian geese and mallards before he turned 10.
So, when he was selected as the artist for this year’s Arkansas duck stamp Connor literally saw a dream come true.
“I’m 60 years old now and probably as long as the Arkansas [duck] stamp has been in existence, I have dreamed about doing it one day,” said Connor, of Hot Springs.
His piece, “Sunlit Mallards at Slick’s, ” marks the 41st annual state duck stamp, and is part of a new era for the duck stamp/print program.
The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) started the program in 1981 to raise revenue for waterfowl and wetlands conservation efforts. The following year, the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation (AGFF) began managing the program and sold collectible prints of the stamp’s image on high-quality, 14-inch by 12-inch card stock.
“These are the prints you see all across the state in duck clubs hanging on the walls or in offices,” said Deke Whitbeck, president of the AGFF.
But after a 40-year run of limited edition prints, the foundation transitioned in 2021 to an open edition of the print, which ended the collectible series.
“We had collectors calling the office saying ‘Hey, we were promised an end to the series and we’re running out of wall space,’” Whitbeck said.
The open edition started a new chapter of the print program.
“Our goal is to attract those waterfowl enthusiasts who might not have collected past prints, but want a memento to help capture an Arkansas duck hunting experience,” Whitbeck said.
Last year’s print featured a black lab retrieving a mallard “and it was very well received,” Whitbeck said. Part of the new series’ success was tied to the price for the print.
The Foundation lowered the price of an unframed print with a mint stamp to $56 to attract new customers. In 2019, a regular series print with a mint stamp sold for $157.
The foundation also launched an online store at arduckstamp.com to sell the prints and other related merchandise.
Since the start of the program, sales from the prints have generated hundreds of thousands of dollars for the nonprofit foundation, which supports the mission and programs of the AGFC, especially its youth education initiatives.
Starting the Program
The Arkansas duck stamp/print program started out of necessity, as the AGFC was struggling financially in the early 1980s.
“We were broke, absolutely dead broke,” Steve Wilson, the former director of the Commission, told Greenhead in 2010.
To raise money, Arkansas introduced its duck stamp/print program in 1981.
“I don’t think people realize how many millions of dollars this has meant for our state and waterfowl program,” Wilson said almost 30 years later.
Larry Grisham took over the stamp/print program in 1982 and helped make it one of the best in the country.
Grisham, who is now 86 and holds the title of wildlife art director at the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation, told Greenhead that the lesson he learned from a friend in Texas was that if the AGFF wanted to have quality art it shouldn’t have contests. Instead, “Pick the artist by the quality of the work,” Grisham said, repeating his friend’s wisdom. “Don’t let a group of people who aren’t qualified to judge art make that selection.”
“And he was right,” Grisham said.
The first artist commissioned was acclaimed wildlife artist Lee LeBlanc.
“Our program was just quality throughout,” Grisham said. “It was done first class with the best artists and the best printing companies available.”
About 7,000 prints were sold the first year, Grisham said, “It was very successful.” The only state that had more first-year sales from its print was Texas.
The second year of the program featured another renowned waterfowl artist, Maynard Reece. That year, about 7,400 prints were sold, marking the first time a state sold more prints the second year than the inaugural year, Grisham said.
Grisham said he wanted nationally-known artists to appeal to a national audience, not just duck hunters in Arkansas.
Each year the waterfowl stamp image would depict an Arkansas duck hunting scene — a duck or geese, a flooded timber site or a rice field. The most popular imagery has featured versions of a mallard in a flooded timber scene.
“We’ve tried to produce a painting or a scene that is very relatable to duck hunters in Arkansas,” said Whitbeck, who said hunters can look at that image and say they’ve been there or be reminded of when they would hunt with their grandfather.
Connor, this year’s artist, said that his piece depicts a sunrise in green timber and has a group of mallards dropping straight down in an intimate little green timber hole.
“It was always a dream of mine to be able to do the Arkansas waterfowl stamp,” Connor said. “And I was graced with the opportunity for this year, so pretty cool deal.”