In his first attempt, Calvin Carter placed fourth with artwork he created for the 2013 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s federal duck stamp contest. Carter’s work was narrowly edged out of the top three spots by one point. His work will be included in a traveling show to promote wildlife conservation. The contest is the largest wildlife art competition in the United States and this year drew 202 entries. Two of the top three winners had previously won the contest, so Carter felt a particular sense of accomplishment to place so highly in the only juried art competition sponsored by the federal government.
Waterfowl hunters must purchase a $15 stamp helping raise about $25 million annually to purchase wetlands and associated upland habitats for inclusion in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Wildlife Refuge System. Since the program's inception, duck stamp sales have raised more than $800 million to conserve more than 6 million acres of crucial habitat.
Carter, his wife, Ashley, and their son, Austin, live in Port Neches where he teaches art at Port Neches-Groves High School. Carter has found some success with other conservation stamps, including the 30th stamp for the 1-million member strong Coastal Conservation Association in 2012, featuring a redfish, and the 2013 Texas Freshwater stamp and print, as well as magazine covers such as the June 2012 and March, April and August 2013 Texas Outdoor Journals.
He was chosen as the 2013 Texas Ducks Unlimited Sponsor Artist of the Year for a piece titled Moonlight Morning. He will sign about 2,000 prints that will be sent to the organization’s sponsors.
Carter has been drawn to art and the outdoors as long as he can remember.
“We lived out near Hempstead. There was a lot of rice land, so my dad hunted ducks and geese a lot. I always enjoyed hunting and fishing and being outdoors since I was a kid,” Carter said. “My grandma used to tell me that I would sit out there and watch the migrating geese for long periods of time and study them and do little drawings of them. She said ‘I think sometimes if you could fly back with them you would.’ She used to tell me that all the time.”
Carter entered Lamar in 1994 and graduated in 2000 after he studied art under the late Jerry Newman, who was particularly well known for his wildlife art.
“A lot of people don’t realize all the flower paintings that Jerry Newman did,” Carter said. “That was his bigger thing, really, rather than the wildlife, he always told me.”
The student and teacher developed a lasting friendship.
“He was like a dad to me,” Carter said. “When Jerry passed away, I was asked to be a pallbearer. That was a major honor. I keep pictures of him in my studio and one of his paintings in remembrance of him. “When I graduated, I kind of didn’t know where to go. It’s like ‘What’s next?’ You can go get your master’s degree but I just couldn’t financially. So, the years went by, and I was just kind of floundering. I was working in a restaurant, waiting tables. That’s when I wasn’t doing much artwork. I was doing some, but it was only for just here and there.
Then, about eight years ago, opportunity knocked.
“A lady, Susan Jackson, who lived in my apartment complex in Brenham, saw my painting and, come to find out, she was a principal at one of the schools,” Carter said. “She said ‘You’re waiting tables? Why are you waiting tables when you should be doing artwork?’ I said it’s not like people walk up to you and say why don’t you come and work for me. But, that’s exactly what she did.”
He took his first teaching position in Somerville, then moved to teach in Pineland, and, this fall, took a position in Port Neches. His teaching reflects his own philosophy: create using one’s own experiences and strive to make a personal statement through art.
“During that time, I started doing some religious artwork,” he said. “I got into that, and I had a big show at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas in 2008. One of the paintings is called Texas Baptism, and you can see it hanging in the Baptist Hospital in Beaumont. “My grandfather is one of the characters in it. It was sort of the country version of the Archangel Michael. The whole theme was very southern and country— religious artwork mostly from a child or country boy’s view —how a child would interpret the stories. Because not all of us growing in this part of the world would have seen Michelangelo’s or Leonardo’s work and understood what he was trying to say. “As a matter of fact, St. Anthony’s Basilica is going to have a sculpture unveiled soon that I designed.”
The three-dimensional depiction of Christ shows a muscular form because “they wanted to show his power through this image.” The bronze casting is due for installation later this year, Carter said.
“It has been kind of a weird twist going from religious artwork back to wildlife artwork,” Carter said. “When Jerry passed away, there was still lot of stuff I needed to know, and I didn’t feel like I had anyone to turn to for help. I really didn’t know the business that well.”
He was fortunate to find some support from Gib DeLisle, who introduced him to Houston gallery owner Butch Kissman who works with several well-known wildlife artists.
“In the beginning it was pretty rocky,” Carter said. “It is really hard to break into that market. The first six months was like having to learn all over again.”
Carter works most often from reference photographs, but also draws on personal experience. When it comes to his exceptionally realistic depictions of fish in their habitat, he said he makes use of his small underwater camera, which gives him an idea of the lighting, sand, and colors underwater.
In the first year, his only commission was a four-part series of paintings of Houston businessman Brent Moreland and world-record-holding sharpshooter Tom Knapp duck, pheasant and dove hunting, and shooting skeet.
“Unfortunately, Tom died earlier this year. I did get to spend some time with him and complete the first of the series before he passed away,” Carter said.
Moreland also commissioned Carter to paint a scene of him catching a 31-inch rainbow trout. The bonus – it would have to be painted on site in King Salmon, Alaska.
“When I got there, the guy who owned the lodge came up to me before I even got my suitcases out of my hands and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a little project for you.’ My first thought was ‘Really, I came up to fish, take pictures, and you’ve got a project for me.’ He said, ‘Well, did you see that old boat we have in front of the lodge?’ I said ‘No.’ ‘Exactly, nobody sees it,” he said. ‘It sits up there in front of the lodge, and nobody even pays attention to it. We are thinking about putting our name across it.’”
Before the trip, Carter had seen a photo of an airplane with a salmon painted along its side.
“I said ‘Why don’t we do a fish across the boat instead of just your logo?’ We only had three days – which wasn’t the biggest challenge. Getting the paint and supplies was the hard part,” Carter said, because of the remote location. “I got my friend who took me up there to help. We got it done, and that was pretty cool. “In the following year, I did a lot of work with Ducks Unlimited, Delta Waterfowl, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and CCA.”
For Ducks Unlimited, those who have the winning bid can arrange for a personal piece of art showing their favorite sport, often a father and son and their dog at their favorite hunting spot. Carter has created more than a dozen portraits on behalf of Ducks Unlimited.
While he looks forward to entering competition for the 2014 federal duck stamp, he continues to promote art and the outdoors in other ways. Currently, he is working with local outdoor host Chester Moore to film an episode of his show God’s Outdoors focusing on wildlife art.
All the entries into the federal duck stamp competition are posted at www.outdoorsweekly . You can view Carter’s art at www.calvincarterart.com  and find him on Facebook at Carter's creations. To learn about art at Lamar University, visit BeACardinal.com.
(Lamar press release)