Sunday, September 28, 2014

A little backstory, and the day of the win

Oh gosh. Okay. Where to start?
I guess I better start at the beginning. I want to document this, lest I forget. It will be fun to look back upon these words, someday.

I am going to write candidly; when thinking about how I wanted to represent all this, I decided that I really ought to just be myself, even if that means coming across as a bit goofy and eccentric. This is long and rambling; it is a journal after all!

(No really, the beginning… scroll down to read about my win)
Growing up, I was given a few copies of Wildlife Art Magazine when I was perhaps 8 or so. I remember pouring over them every day, as if they were the best comic books ever. I was fascinated by every article, every painting, even ever ad (the ads were for art), … just, every last little tidbit of wildlife art inside. I had known about Robert Bateman from library books previously, and had wanted to “paint animals” since I was around 5 or 6, but the Wildlife Art Magazines! So cool! They were big, thick, giant books of magazines. I wanted to DO that.

One thing in these magazines that kept popping up were Duck Stamp entries. I didn't really understand much about the program then, maybe I thought they were postage stamps. There was no internet (at least nothing that we would consider “internet” today) and we didn't have a computer. Thinking about painting birds and ducks and winning some sort of vague fantasy contest was something I would daydream about. I was… probably not a normal child.

Unfortunately, I grew up with no knowledge that the Junior Duck Stamp program existed until I was nearly too old to enter. The Jr. Duck stamp is similar to the federal; it is for those under 18 years of age. They are judged at a state level then the winners of each state go on to be judged at a federal level. It is a great program to get children and teens into conservation. I honestly can not say why I didn't know about it; perhaps I did, and I just did not understand what it was about at the time. I can’t remember. Once I did find out about it and realized what it was, I was a Junior in high school. I had doubled up on many of my classes as part of a program that only a small number of students were allowed to participate in (I think I was one of 6 or 7) that fast tracked me though my classes in half the time so that I could take extra classes my Senior year. The workload was intense as I took many Regents and AP classes. In retrospect I probably could have managed my time well enough to find a way to paint a duck stamp entry, but the simple honest truth was that between hours of homework, the only thing I really wanted to do was be outdoors, especially hunting with my dad in the autumn and into winter.

The Junior Duck Stamp program is one I accidentally passed by. In the following years, I felt myself regret that. I launched off on my own right out of high school, and did not have a good enough portfolio to find any arts-related jobs (at the time I was very keen on the idea of doing creature and background art for a game company). So into retail I went. I did not have a car and relied on others for transportation. Often, I would only be at home long enough to sleep. Life was a bit rough. I knew I was not in a position to make paintings… at least not good paintings, good enough for duck stamp competitions. Many years passed.

When I was finally stable enough in my life that I could dedicate time to painting ducks, I began to study them. A very kind hunter from California (thank you Bob J.) legally gifted me a few ducks, including a lovely male Gadwall, that I studied in great detail. I lovingly, and perhaps eccentrically, call them my freezer ducks, and I treasure and respect them in life and death. I visited Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, and a friend (Thank you Jenn) very kindly took me to see the study skins and I took photos. I attempted to find wild ducks locally, including one very laughable incident that had us visiting a Waste Water treatment plant where ducks of many species were known to congregate according to our local birding group. It was true; it was actually lovely habitat and very dense with ducks. It was my first time seeing many species in the wild, including Ruddy Ducks. The problem is that there was little vegetation, the ducks are wild and wary, I had a rather poor camera at the time, and the wind is often howling off of the shores of Lake Ontario at a really good clip. It was exciting, but the ducks were mere pixels on the horizon even through my binoculars. I jokingly sent my friends some photos of the “pixel ducks”, which indeed looked like tiny blurry dots on some choppy water. I managed to carefully move close enough to a small group of Ruddy Ducks to get a photo that was more than a tiny smeary dot. I was so excited that I made a mental note that I had to paint Ruddy Ducks someday. This is that photo. Please behold the National Geographic quality…
The best photo to come out of that trip. Wild Ruddy Ducks! 

I was going to have to do something different, if I was to have any hope of getting decent reference. For the next two years, I started tucking away a little money when I could, toward investing in a camera and lens setup that was at least a little better.
I then traveled to visit my friend Hillary on the West Coast. This had the added benefit of being during January (when many migrants and ducks were around), and she is also a big bird nerd. We set out from day one to try and locate some Brant, as she had been given a tip on where to view them. To make things even more amazing, her boyfriend was letting me borrow his camera and 400mm lens so that I could attempt to get some decent photos. We had a wacky adventure driving on Highway 1, but never did find the brant. Still, the trip lasted for days and I managed to see a Surf Scoter along the way. We wandered through the redwood forests and I loved all of nature as much as a person can. I was cascading with emotion and awe over how beautiful everything was. We wept in delight over every single thing. When we arrived in Oregon, Hillary took me to a park that was known for attracting piles and piles of wild ducks, and since it was a park they were not quite as skittish. All of the drakes were in their full beautiful breeding plumage, full of splendor and resplendence. My eyes shone and sparkled as if I had gone to a holy place. Our entire trip consisted of bright and sunny days until the day I found the ducks. Then it got dark and overcast. It drizzled a little. My duck photos were... not great.
This nice Canada Goose came and sat with me as I crawled around in the mud to try and get good angles on the ducks. The camera equipment shown here was kindly loaned to me.
Looking for ducks in Oregon. Found a goose.

We later stopped at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. You are not permitted to exit your car, but I had an amazing time watching all of the wildlife. I almost bubbled over, because duck stamps helped to buy and protect this very place, and I was there trying to get photos so that I could paint duck stamps. My life was pretty awesome, that day.

I headed back home, inspired to paint better, inspired by nature, inspired by ducks, inspired by everything. I finished saving up to buy a new camera, as I was most impressed with the one loaned to me. I studied ducks some more and did a tremendous amount of really bad duck drawings which have never seen the light of day. I studied and studied forever. I bought a few sets of acrylic paints to try and settled on the ones that seemed to suit me best. I wanted to paint in oils, but my work table shares airspace with my loved pet parrots, and I could not use any materials that had vapors that could harm them. I did a bunch of paintings over the course of a year to at least get marginally used to the acrylics. Previously, most of my work had been watercolor, digital, and a few other mixed mediums. I did a little oil painting in High School and just after, but nothing noteworthy.

My first painting was an entry for North Carolina’s Duck Stamp Contest, of a pair of Gadwalls. I expected it to flop spectacularly, but it actually made it past round 1. No further, but really I was not expecting to do even that well. Surprised and encouraged, I painted entries for several more state competitions. Oklahoma, Delaware, Michigan, and Colorado. I flopped a lot. Some of my paintings were a bit better and some just frankly weren’t good. I knew I was not producing stellar work, but I knew myself. If I didn’t keep trying… even with sub-par work, then I would be likely to give up. I didn’t want to give up. Not yet.

I entered my first Federal Duck Stamp competition in 2010, with a painting of Northern Shovelers. Even after all my research on Shovelers, I got nervous. I rushed my painting and just didn’t do a great job. I was rather embarrassed with myself! I resolved to take another year off from entering the Federal, because frankly I needed to shape up my game, so to speak. In the interim, I kept studying, and painted for several more state competitions. I am honored to say that I placed 4th in North Carolina’s stamp in 2011 with Gadwalls again, and in 2012 I placed second in Oregon’s Conservation Stamp contest. Encouraged, I decided to enter the Federal again. I painted a pair of Brant, just as I observed them in a trip to Connecticut earlier that year. I was very moved by the experience of the Brant foraging close to shore on a compound low tide, which revealed a lot of rocky areas that were covered in beautiful “Irish Moss” (a type of algae). I painted the scene from memory and a few poor photos I took. My painting didn’t do very well, but it was no surprise, as I still hadn’t quite got the hang of things and there were dozens of truly exceptional paintings, so much nicer than mine!

In 2013 I placed 5th in North Carolina’s duck stamp again, with a painting of Hooded Mergansers. I had a small and delightful moment where I felt like I understood the paint better, and along with the encouragement of friends, continued to paint throughout the year. A pair of Cinnamon Teal is what I entered in the Federal last year, and to my shock it made it past round 1! It scored a 15 in round two, which meant that the judges did not find it loathsome. I was delighted, and determined to learn how to paint better. I did not enter any more stamps the rest of that year, and instead dedicated myself to trying to make better paintings overall. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I did try.

I long mulled over the species list, starting last winter. The choices were: brant, Canada goose, northern shoveler, red-breasted merganser and ruddy duck. I liked all of these waterfowl. I love every bird. I struggled a bit over the choice, and found myself thinking of ruddy ducks fondly, over and over. I struggled with even this; as much as I love these silly little ducks, the contest has not favored them. In fact, they had only been on stamp images twice since 1934. Other species were favored; not without reason, as there are some beautiful species of ducks, and some species certainly hold more nostalgia and are closer to some hearts than others. Still, I kept thinking of busy little ruddy ducks, and decided that I would not stress over it. I would paint a ruddy duck, have fun, score poorly, and still be happy to have been a part of the contest! Not that I did not take it seriously— I did not paint a ruddy in jest. I just wanted to loosen up a bit, as I felt that the more I stressed over previous paintings, the worse they looked to me.

I collected my references, which I am so thankful to say I was able to photograph some ruddy ducks and the photos are reasonably clear, and set to studying them. I started planning my painting in March, and planned the composition and colors as best I could. Even though I was not stressed, I still wanted to make a good painting, and that requires carefully thinking about choices such as placement of all the elements, color, composition, making sure it would reduce well, bright colors, good contrast, and so on. Initially I had masses of clouds and trees on the lake shore, but felt it was too busy, especially once reduced. I had to fight for a few weeks to try and try to unify the color and light on my concept thumbnails, as my reference photos all had very different lighting. As much as I would love to say I took a photo of the two ruddy ducks posed the way they are, nature does not so often cooperate, and it ended up being a composite of many of my photos along with some aspects that I just had to pull out of my head.

I finally got it to the point where it looked reasonable, and started painting the first week in June. I worked on it nearly every day until July 22nd, at which point I took a quick scan and got it varnished so that it would dry in time. I shipped July 30th, as I left the next day to attend my friend Amber’s wedding, and would not be back home in time to do any more work before the deadline of August 15th.

Fast forward to when the USFWS posted the duck stamp entries to their Flickr page, on August 31st. I looked through as I always do, and as always, was floored by the exceptional artwork that was entered! I was not depressed about my entry, but my gut reaction was “I can’t hope to win, not that I expected to, but LOOK AT ALL THESE GLORIOUS PAINTINGS!” They were scanned and uploaded at high resolution. I went through for hours and smashed my face into the screen, to bask in how lovely they were. My friends and I sighed dreamily at the fleshiness of a bill, or the bounce light on feathers, or the rendering of water. So many beautiful things to behold. (THE GLORIOUS DETAILS! warning: large image)

Life got in the way for a few weeks. The stamp was temporarily pushed from my mind as some bad stuff went down. Hospitals, a beloved dog passing away, family stuff, you know. Sad happenings. Still, I had marked the date of judging on my calendar and on Friday the 19th, I hopped on my computer to watch the livestream… coffee fresh in my mug sporting some Canada Geese (I had a feeling that a Canada Goose or merganser painting would win, so it felt appropriate).

My entry was #19. I guess that sending it in early (July 30th) got me in the start of the pack. There were 186 entries total, though a few were disqualified. Most of the time disqualifications seem to happen when someone does not follow the rules, and does something such as painting the wrong species, or signs the art with their name. Artists are not allowed to mark the painting in any way that identifies the artist, in an effort to keep the judging fair.

When judging started, I was nervous, but not overly so. I was confident that there were so many incredible paintings that I would not have to worry about doing terribly well. It’s sort of strange how that can be relaxing! Please understand that I am not trying to dismiss my painting as bad art, I did try my very best! But, I am my own worst critic and honestly I just admired the work of the other artists so very much that the idea of my painting doing well just seemed impossible. It is less about putting myself down than it is about looking up to and admiring the other artwork. Aspiring to it!!

I told my husband before the contest, that if I could make it past round 1, that I would be elated. For those unfamiliar with the process, the Federal duck stamp contest is judged in rounds. The judges are each shown the physical painting, and they are separated by panels so that they do not know how the others voted. In round one, each of the 5 judges votes the painting “IN” or “OUT”, depending on if they feel it is good enough to pass to the next round. Majorty rules, and one must have a minimum of three “IN” votes to pass to the next round. At the end of the round, each judge may optionally “call back” up to five paintings each (but no more than five), if they felt the painting was of enough merit that they personally wanted it to go to the next round.

This is my score from round one. I was tickled!! It is an honor that even one judge thinks my painting is good enough to pass. Three did! I was in round 2. (screen capture from Livestream)

Now all that was left was to cheer on my duck stamp friends! There were a few surprises with the rest of the first round. Some of my friends made it and others did not. I empathized with their disappointment. They are all amazing artists and I know that they will do well in the future.

Round two was the next day, the 20th of September. I was a bit excited, and nervous, but not overly so— I was being realistic with myself. Most of my favorite paintings had passed to round two, and I just knew one of them would win! In round two, each of the judges has a numbered card, from one to five. One being the worst, and five being the best. A perfect score would be five fives— so, 25. The lowest score possible would be five ones, so, 5. The five highest scores would all move on to round three. Meaning, if the highest numerical scores were 25, 24, 23, (etc), each painting that got that score would move on. I told myself that I’d be just beside myself with a score of anything over 10.

Because several of the paintings before mine got “OUT” in round one, my art was scored almost immediately. I got a startling score of 17.

Because mine was scored so soon in the round (as they go in numerical order), I thought that surely it would not be a high enough score to move on to round three. I watched the stream, rooting on my duck stamp peers! Several of them scored higher than I did. I was very excited for them. My husband started pacing. “Seventeen is really good!”
"Nah," I laughed. "There will be several above 20. You’ll see."

I was in a livestream chat with several other duck stamp artists. Some had entered this year, some had not. We were all cheering each other on enthusiastically. The camaraderie was wonderful.
All too soon they were done judging round two. My husband as well as one of the artists in the chat had done the math. Everyone with a score of 17 or above would move on to round three.
I was stunned.
"Are you sure?!"
Yes, my husband replied. He also did the math to indicate that I should be in the “top 20”, which is the top 20 scoring paintings that go on tour with the winner for a year. I felt like a fish out of water. Bubbles may have come out of my mouth, I’m not sure. The top 20!! I never dreamed I would do that well. It was an exceptional achievement. I knew I would flunk in the last round, given how beautiful the other paintings were, but the top 20!
We had a mini dance celebration while the judges took a 30 minute break.

We sat back down for round three. In round three, the judges may score paintings only from 3-5. I suppose the logic is that if a painting has done well enough to get to round three, then it can not be a “1” or a “2”. Mine was the first painting up.
A 20.

My stomach started to do flips. A 20 was pretty darn good! But, there are still five scores higher than that. In years past I have seen paintings get 24, and even 25— perfect score. I was confident others would do better.
My husband did not help matters any. He was getting visibly freaked out. I waved him off, and assured him that paintings score higher than this every year.
The paintings went by, getting judged. There were 17 in this round, including my own. I couldn’t fathom the idea that at least three of them would not score higher than mine.
None scored higher. Two other paintings scored 20. There were three paintings tied for first place with a score of 20.
I had a score of 20.

I remember feeling distinctly confused. My husband was repeating to me that no matter what, I was in the top three. Either first, second, or third. I remember feeling distinctly confused. Maybe it was a mistake. What?!

It was the first three-way tie like that in the history of the stamp program. They had to move on to round four to break the tie. They showed each judge all three paintings together, then one at a time for judging. Mine was first.
It scored 20, again.

I watched in disbelief as the lovely Canada Goose painting scored lower than 20 (I was too frazzled to remember the exact score), and the merganser scored a 20 as well (a tie).
I think my husband shook me. I was going to place either first or second. “Shhh,” I said in disbelief. I was still feeling terribly confused.

They passed the paintings around again. I wasn’t sure if I was going to explode or not. I remember vaguely thinking “Gosh, I am glad I’m not there. I would have fallen on the floor and made a big nonsensical spectacle and ruined everything.” I scored a number. The number was 21.

The merganser scored a number too. I couldn’t understand it. It was 20, I believe (I will have to check once the score sheets come out). I had just… won?
My husband was freaking out. I made him go upstairs. The chatroom was freaking out. I was trying my best to phase out of existence, I was shaking so hard. Was this real life?

Minutes later, or seconds, or years… at that point I am not sure time was passing properly for me, they announced on the livestream that they had a clear first, second, and third place winner. They announced third place; Frank Mittlestadt with a gloriously beautiful Canada Goose:

In second place, Ron Loque with a dreamy flying red-breasted merganser:

And in first place, and winner of the 2015-2016 Federal Duck stamp…
(“nope,” I said, quietly. “this is pretty much not happening.”) Was Jennifer Miller, with her ruddy duck painting.
That was my name, and that was my painting.

My husband was already on the phone, calling family. “Oh,” I remember thinking, as my body shook so hard that I made my parrots nervous and knocked a plastic dinosaur off my computer desk. “Oh, they are confused.” But, it was I that was confused. I’m still a bit confused. I am, in truth, just a strange girl that lives in the woods and carries chickens around. I’m not like those cool people in the Wildlife Art Magazine of yesteryear.

But. There I was. It sunk in once it popped up on the Fish and Wildlife Service’s website.
I wish that there was a way to describe how I felt, how I feel now…! In words, in text, electronically. There is no way for me to convey as your eyes slide over these little pixels combined to make text, there is no way for me to convey… to convey any of it. The rush of realization and immense, thunderous humbling honor. The gratitude! The terrifying moment of speculation, hoping the other artists are not angry with me. The cascade of joy and how in awe I was of having my painting.. something my hands, eyes, mind and heart worked together to make (along with no few kind words of support, cooperative little ruddy ducks to photograph, and love from so many family and friends). The wonder I felt; my name was now on a list with so many of the people I have admired since childhood, and into my adult years. So many extraordinary people, and exemplary artists. How was this possible?

I spent the rest of the day in a haze. It took me ten minutes to put socks on. Was this really happening? I walked around holding my socks. I am supposed to put them on. Did that really happen? Where are my socks? My husband kindly directed me to where I put them down in a daze. I finally had warm feet.

The rest of the story, until now.. a mere two days later, is not so exciting. It has been a huge number of emails, phone calls, and a large education. That is another time, in another journal entry, though.
I really must pause for a moment, and thank some special people. I have dozens and dozens of people to thank, but I have to thank my husband for his undying support in this, what can be considered a pretty wacky hobby and dream. I want to thank my friend Amber, for always taking time to help me and critique my work. I want to thank Hillary, for taking me on a wild adventure looking for ducks on the west coast, among other things. I want to thank Shari Erickson, because she reached out to me to help me when I first started, and has supported me every single step of the way. My parents, for letting me varnish my paintings at their house and for their help and support in the coming months. My friend Chelsea, my patron saint of the arts, for helping me to afford art supplies during the times that my bank account isn’t able to. My family, my friends, my Duck Stamp buddies— all of you, holy crow, you are all awesome. I couldn’t have done this without you.

My artwork is for the 2015-2016 stamp; it will not be printed or for sale until next summer. Despite this, you can buy the current duck stamp right now. It is really beautiful, a painting by Adam Grimm of canvasbacks. You’ll hear more from me between now and then, for sure. I will forever be screaming about ducks. I will need to do some prints and those will come later too. I have a lot of doing to do.

Part of the responsibilities of the winner involves traveling with the stamp and representing it as well as the Federal Duck Stamp program. The top twenty will tour, and here is a schedule — note that the new paintings (from this year’s judging) will not premiere until November at the Easton Waterfowl Festival. There is a lot I will need to do behind the scenes, but to the best of my knowledge the first to shows I will personally be at are:

Easton Waterfowl Festival, Easton MD
November 14-16, 2014
Wildlife Art Festival, Redlands CA
November 21-23

(more to come as I get them)

If you have made it this far in this journal, I commend you. Maybe you want to know more about the duck stamp program? I’d be happy to yap at you about it some.
In short:

The Federal Duck Stamp program is a US-based conservation program. The stamp itself started in 1934 as a hunting stamp. Back then, this was how licenses were done. A hunter would purchase the stamp and sign his or her name across it, to prove that he or she paid for a license to hunt migratory birds. This act of conservation was a giant step from the days of old when there was no regulation and unfortunately sometimes things got pretty out of hand. The stamp was the first step of many that hunters themselves took as a way to make sure that no one overdid it, ever again.
The duck stamp has since evolved into something a lot more. Now, not only hunters buy them, but a great many birders and other people interested in conservation buy them. They can also be used as a pass to gain access to a National Wildlife Refuge. Indeed, 98 cents of every dollar that the stamp sells for goes directly to buying or preserving federal wildlife refuges and wetlands (the other two cents covers the costs of printing them and such). This does not just benefit ducks and hunters; a huge number of species, all the way from protozoa to large birds and mammals depend on wetlands. They are prime birding locations. Wetlands provide vital natural management of our watersheds and waterways, both for humans and other species. Amphibians and insects alike depend on these areas. Wetlands are of incredible benefit. To date, the duck stamp program alone has raised over $800 million for this purpose. As an artist, none of the money from the sale of stamps comes back to me. And that is great— that means it is all going to conservation. Further, the stamp program can license the image out to be sold on merchandise and products. The sale of these products (the part that the USFWS gets) goes directly into the Migratory bird Conservation Fund.
Anyhow, anyone can buy one, and it is is all good. If you are keen on one, check at your local post office, or you can do it on the internets too:
Even if you can’t or don’t want to buy one, it’s really a great thing to get excited about. A lot of people don’t even know this program exists, nor the enormous amount of good it does! Plus, let’s be honest here— many of my friends that will read this are artists too. You know that art is often overlooked. Glance at many grade school art programs across the country… the cuts are happening. Some schools don’t even have art any more. I don’t know about you, but man that is depressing. I would be so very sad indeed if the only government-run, nationally recognized art contest went away.
Even if you are not hot on ducks, that alone should put a little wrinkle in your heart. Let’s let people know about the Duck Stamp program, and why it’s so awesome!

(cross-posted to Tumblr)

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Introduction

Jennifer, with her painting of Ruddy Ducks
Hello Everyone!
I should start with an introduction. My name is Jennifer Miller; I am a strange artist in Western NY that lives in the woods and carries around chickens, and I won the 2015-2016 Federal Duck Stamp.

Yeah, wow. I am still reeling, too.

I will follow shortly with a post about how I won, only a week ago, and how my life is already changing. This win is an immense honor, and to be now among some of the top wildlife artists that the US has ever known (both past and present) is a feeling I can not describe. I hope to share with you the whirlwind adventure I am about to begin; an adventure that I never could have realized on my own before this. I will be traveling and also writing from home, expressing the importance of the Federal Duck Stamp program to our vulnerable wetlands, and just how important they are to so many species... including many of North America's migratory birds.

I am, in truth, a bit unconventional for a stamp winner. I am only the third female artist to win, I am quite a nerd (both for birds as well as other things), and a bit eccentric. In a "Wow I really love moss" sort of way... not the creepy sort of way. I hope.

And I also won with Ruddy Ducks. Did you know Ruddy ducks have only been on three stamps in the last 82 years? I hope we can all collectively show the Ruddy ducks some love (watch this video of a displaying drake, and honestly tell me you don't love this duck), as well as all of the other thousands of species that benefit from and truthfully depend on our shrinking wetland system. In a time when we are all shaking our heads over the failings of many of our government systems, the duck stamp program actually does good... a lot of good! I'll get more into that soon, though. 

I hope you'll join me on this wonderful adventure, as this strange and silly bird-brained girl tries to share some Duck Stamp love.

(cross-posted to Tumblr)