In his youth, Richard Clifton woke up before dawn to go duck hunting in the marshes of Delaware. He pushed his boat into the water and waited. Sometimes a mallard flew overhead, a silhouette in the dark with the wind whistling through its feathers.
His memories of the quiet waters of Slaughter Creek have inspired his art for years. Now one of his paintings has entangled him in a controversy in one of the nation’s top competitions for duck painters: the Federal Duck Stamp Contest.
Mr. Clifton, 58, was announced the winner over 137 other artists late last month, landing him in a debate about conservation and art that started with one new federal rule. This year, for the first time, artists were required to incorporate hunting objects or scenes into their paintings to, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, celebrate the American “waterfowl hunting heritage.”
The requirement has unsettled the small world of duck art since it was proposed early this year. Some artists said it interfered with the independence of their vision, or required them to incorporate the “litter” of spent casings. The rule propelled the contest, which has mostly flown under the radar for 71 years, into a series by the National Audubon Society and articles by national and international news outlets. Last month, Friends of Animals, a rights group, filed a lawsuit in Connecticut district court seeking to have the rule removed.
The rule “takes the cake as one of the most ludicrous, anti-wildlife, anti-conservation measures the administration has implemented,” Priscilla Feral, the president of the group, said in a statement.
Mr. Clifton complied with the rule by painting a duck call, a tool used by hunters to attract waterfowl, floating in the reeds next to a Lesser Scaup, a small North American diving duck. The abandoned duck call was inspired by his memory of finding one while hunting near his Milford home when he was in his 20s.
“It did not really throw that big of a wrench into my design,” he said of the new hunting rule. “But it is a little more restrictive. I would much rather see straight-up duck, and you pit your duck against my duck. I am not sure why it was necessary to mandate that now.”
His painting will be made into the 2021-22 duck stamp, which hunters need for their license and which stamp collectors and birders buy on their own. “It’s certainly a career goal if you are a duck artist,” he said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service describes the stamp program as a successful conservation vehicle. About 1.5 million duck stamps are sold each year and, as of 2019, they have generated more than $1.1 billion for the preservation of over six million acres of waterfowl habitat, said Aurelia Skipwith, the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“The Trump administration has prioritized protecting our wildlife and their habitats and provided access to some of the most spectacular places available for hunting, fishing, bird-watching, hiking and other outdoor activities,” she said.
After the rule was proposed in January, 708 public comments on the wildlife service’s website included concerns that a mandatory hunting theme “was divisive” and would jeopardize the stamp’s appeal to people who don’t hunt. But the service said that the dominant feature of each stamp would still be required to be a duck or group of ducks, rather than the hunting element.
It also said that several artists were concerned that the mandatory inclusion of a hunting item would “alienate or discourage” many artists. Others said they would not enter the contest on principle, or thought that they would be at a “disadvantage” because they were not hunters, or that their creativity would be hampered, the service said.
Rebekah Knight, 29, who works out of her home studio in Deepwater, Mo., argued against the new rule, saying the inclusion of a random hunting allusion could backfire. In her view, spent shells and duck calls added to a painting of the environment represent “litter,” because responsible hunters carry those items out of the habitat.
“I don’t really think it celebrates our hunting heritage,” she said. “A hunting scene or an old decoy would be better.”
Robert Hautman, 61, objected on technical reasons. Taking a break from sketching in his studio in a hen house outside of Delano, Minn., he said he opposed the inclusion of hunting objects mostly because they do not reproduce well when a 7-by-10-inch painting is reduced to the size of a small stamp.
“The idea that you have somebody hunting in there is fine, because 90 percent of the stamps that are sold are to hunters,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter what’s in it. It’s what the money is doing.”
Like Mr. Clifton, Greg Alexander, 60, is a self-taught artist. From his studio in Wisconsin, he has submitted work in the contest for 40 years.
In the early ’90s, when he was an “avid” duck hunter, Mr. Alexander shot a duck in the woods in northern Wisconsin. His retriever, Umber, fetched and brought back a bird that made Mr. Alexander pause.
“The teal was so small I couldn’t see the subsistence value of it,” he said.
So for the 2020 duck stamp contest, he daubed in a shotgun shell near a cinnamon teal duck, but rendered it to show that it had not been fired, a symbolic nod to the day he quit.
“There is actually a deep meaning to the shotgun shell in the water,” he said. “It was my little message. A lot of people say that the shell in the water shows littering by hunters, but I use the shotgun shell as a platform rather than an apparently littered shell.”