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Duck time at the Ding

By Staff | Mar 4, 2015

It must be that time.

Junior Duck Stamp artwork is arriving in bundles at J.N. “Ding” Darling Refuge offices. Florida coordinator for the popular program is Becky Larkins, education ranger at the Sanibel refuge managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She’s expecting thousands of youth entries by the postmarked March 15 deadline. That some 800 children entered the Junior Duck Stamp contest in 2010 testifies to the currency and prestige of the program; it’s expected 3,100 will enter this year.

Aside for having their work placed on a federal stamp and the stardust associated with the program, winners can sell the original work for serious cash. It was learned that a national Junior Duck Stamp winner’s original artwork fetched some $15,000. The adult winner’s work sold for $45,000.

Ultimately, though, the duck stamp contest is about a child placing crayon, chalk, paintbrush or pencil to paper. Most entries are heartfelt, reflecting a child’s vision of a duck, goose or swan in its habitat, Larkins said. Most entries appear as if the child’s tongue is sticking out and eyes are squinched as the work is drawn. A select few are amazing in detail.

But that’s not the point, she said. Most entrants are introduced to the program by duck doodles, or the basics of body structure, and education in habitat and ecology. Early involvement in the natural world is essential for the earth’s survivability, Larkins said.

Child contestants, she said, “are super excited” about the program. “It connects them to nature, but is also a turnkey to the other species. This time of year my Facebook just blows up with duck stamps.”

The federal Junior Duck Stamp program since the 1980s has embraced thousands of school kids, each entering their duck art for possible placement in national competition, introducing them to a creature as untroubling and yet as vital as a duck, goose or swan. Florida’s winner last year, Megan Zou, was from Miami.

The impact of the stamp program has been profound. Top entrants have earned cash and scholarships, recognition and other accolades that carry them forward in life. A rare few become famous, their work on a $5 stamp coveted by world collectors. It’s not a coloring contest.

Islander Jaye Boswell introduced duck drawing as a project at Sanibel School in the 1980s. The program evolved into the national Junior Duck Stamp. It was an extension of the adult stamp program introduced in the 1930s by Jay Norwood Darling, the ink cartoonist whose name is affixed to the wildlife refuge in Sanibel. Boswell remains a fixture in the junior duck stamp program, judging national finalists, staying close to federal authorities managing the project in Florida. She retired from teaching in 2004.

Boswell’s impact was so considerable that a Connecticut woman last year traveled to Sanibel to meet her. Sophia Brubaker told Boswell that students at her New England art school had embraced the duck stamp project. One young girl, in fact, was awarded an $80,000 scholarship to a prestigious art school based on a couple of duck stamp drawings she had entered in national competition. The school’s judges said the work was powerful in its empathy of nature and its stark beauty. Other kids slip duck drawings in college portfolios, work on duck art on their own time, become aware and active in environmental issues, specifically because of the lowly duck Boswell introduced to Sanibel/Captiva school kids in the late 1980s, Brubaker told Boswell.

To further drive interest in Junior Duck Stamp, Larkins spends a chunk of work time between October through January introducing and reinforcing the program in Florida. She hits statewide teacher conferences, art festivals, other spots to preach the message, she said. She teaches an introduction to the program in Sanibel and Lee County. Her professional life is pretty much consumed with the program through judging at the Ding on March 26.

But it’s the simple gestures that are most touching, Larkins said. Instructing on duck doodles in north Fort Myers, a small girl handed Larkins a duck rendering after the class.

“I was so impressed,” she said of the drawing. “And it was in crayon. It was very sweet.”