Southern Md. man wins National Duck Stamp competition

By John Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 28, 2009

For 27 years Robert Bealle, a farmer, fish taxidermist and wildlife artist who lives in Southern Maryland, has been trying to win the Federal Duck Stamp Art Contest, the only art competition sponsored by the U.S. government. And for 27 years, he has been losing.

"I've been in the finals with a redhead [duck]," Bealle said last week at his farm outside Waldorf. "I've been in the finals with a black duck. I've been in the finals with a ring-necked duck. I've been in the finals with flying geese. I've been in the finals with canvasbacks. I've done everything under the sun."

But everything under the sun was never good enough. Bealle, a soft-spoken, bearded 57-year-old who divides his time between painting and sowing oats and hay on his family's 90-acre farm, was starting to wonder whether he would ever win what's been described as the Super Bowl of wildlife painting. Every year, one special bird is selected to grace 3.1 million duck stamps. The stamps aren't used to mail letters or packages but are bought by waterfowl hunters, collectors and conservationists.

The prize is modest: a framed pane of 20 duck stamps signed by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. But being crowned king of the ducks vaults the winner to the front ranks of American wildlife artists, men and women who obsessively observe waterfowl in order to paint near-photographic likenesses of them.

Bealle is considered by many to have been the best freshwater fish taxidermist in Maryland, a process that involves gutting a fish, removing its innards, steeping the skin in Borax, then coating the inside of the fish with a plaster solution and shaping the skin into a lifelike pose. Bealle's final step was re-creating the distinct colors and patterns on the fish with a paintbrush.

At the height of his business, Bealle's freezer was full of customers' trophy catches, so many that at one time he had an 18-month backlog of orders. Then, after 12 years, he stopped stuffing fish.

"I got bored with it," Bealle explained. "Ninety-nine percent of people, this is what they wanted." He gestured toward a largemouth bass on his dining room table, its mouth open, its body flexed. Such a simple pose wasn't much of a challenge for him.

He turned to wildlife painting, capturing in oil the animals he'd encounter when working his farm or sitting in a duck blind or tree stand: wild turkeys, geese, foxes, ducks.

Lots and lots of ducks.

A duck hunter since the age of 9, Bealle was familiar with what is officially called the U.S. Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp. Every duck hunter in the country must purchase one of the $15 stamps. They're also collected by philatelists and birders. Since its inception in 1934, the program has raised more than $750 million to purchase and protect 6 million acres of wildlife habitat.

Bealle first entered the competition in 1982. In 1983, he came in second. Since then, he's reached the finals more times than he can remember. His designs have graced the Maryland Duck Stamp, a separate contest, three times.

"When you keep coming that close, you can't give up on it," Bealle said. "It was always 'maybe this year.' "

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