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Southern Md. man wins National Duck Stamp competition

Bealle decided to approach the 2009 contest differently. Each year, the Fish and Wildlife Service chooses five waterfowl species from which artists can select their subject. This year, they were the wood duck, the gadwall, the cinnamon teal, the blue-winged teal and the wigeon.

Bealle had a hunch that most artists wouldn't be able to resist painting the wood duck, an almost cartoonishly colorful bird with crimson eyes and a green iridescent helmetlike head. He decided to break from the pack.

"The judges can just get snow-blind from looking at all those [wood] ducks," he said.

He dismissed the gadwall as too drab. He dismissed the blue-winged teal and cinnamon teal as "niche ducks." That left the wigeon, a duck found throughout North America. It has a powder-blue beak and a white forehead that gives it the nickname the "baldpate."

There was something else at the back of Bealle's mind: "When I was second, I lost to a pair of wigeons," he said.

Bealle started working on his entry in January, first drawing the duck in pencil on a Masonite board that he had painted white with gesso.

He sketched for weeks, fiddling with the position of the duck, the angle of its head, the stalks of wild rice cane in the background. By the end of June, he was ready to start painting. He worked in a corner of his basement, watched by a menagerie of stuffed birds, fish and deer.

"I put quite a few hours into it," he said. "I'd spend a whole day doing an eye and the beak. I wouldn't do that on a normal painting."

In recent years, the Federal Duck Stamp competition judging has become part "American Idol" and part Miss America pageant. This year's public festivities were held at the Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel.

The 234 entries were on display, each painted a uniform 9-by-12 inches. On Oct. 16, the panel of five judges made the first cut. They sat onstage, separated by partitions and equipped with reducing glasses to help gauge how each painting would look shrunk down. A Duck Stamp office staffer walked past, holding the entry while it was projected on a screen behind the judges. When asked to vote, each judge held up a card that read IN or OUT. To reach the next round, a duck had to receive three IN votes.

"I'm sitting there about to die a thousands deaths," Bealle said. "I told my wife, 'When they get to mine, I'm leaving.' But then I thought, 'What if I win this whole thing?' "

He stayed and watched as all five of the judges' cards came up "IN" for entry No. 50, his wigeon.

The next day, the judges winnowed the finalists by voting on a 5-point scale. After the third round, Bealle was in first place. But so was Scot Storm of Freeport, Minn., the 2004 duck stamp winner. The two had identical scores.

The artists' entries were put side by side -- Bealle's wigeon next to the pair of wood ducks Storm had painted -- and voted on one last time. Bealle won, scoring 23 out of 25 to Storm's 21 out of 25.

The duck monkey was finally off Bealle's back.

"Now I'll always be referred to as a Federal Duck Stamp winner," said Bealle. "It may not mean a lot to most people, but to me it means a hell of a lot."

Bealle's victory surprised some in the audience.

"It was a long shot, like one of those horses that's in 15th place in the Kentucky Derby and all of a sudden comes on and wins at the end," said Bob Dumaine, a Houston stamp dealer and founder of the National Duck Stamp Collectors Society. "We were all glad to see him win because he's tried so many times."

Like a newly crowned Miss America, Bealle has a busy year ahead of him. He is obligated to attend at least a half-dozen wildlife art festivals to promote the 2010 Duck Stamp. He must choose a printer for the limited-edition lithograph versions of his painting. He has to decide whether to keep the original or sell it.

"The enterprising people make money at it," Dumaine said. "The ones sitting around waiting for the cash register to ring, they're still waiting."

One thing Bealle doesn't have to worry about is entering the Federal Duck Stamp competition. To give other artists a chance, winners must sit out for the next three years.

Bealle expects he will enter in 2013.

"By then, I'll be chomping at the bit to get back in it."

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