The federal government accused a 6-year-old of plagiarism and stripped her of her victory in this year’s national Junior Duck Stamp contest, leaving the youngest-ever winner in tears and igniting a fierce debate in the wildlife art community over artistic techniques, precocious youngsters and catty parents.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which runs the annual contest, says that by first tracing the outlines of her duck from one of her father’s unpublished photos before painting it, Madison Grimm violated the rules.
But Madison’s father Adam says the rules don’t actually ban tracing or “graphite transfer,” and he is backed up by the man who used to run the program and helped write the current rules, who said there’s no way Madison should have been disqualified — much less been declared the winner and then had it rescinded.
“Between my daughter crying and my wife crying, it’s been a nightmare,” Mr. Grimm told The Washington Times this week.
The agency seemed to finger Madison’s age — she is the youngest winner in history — as its chief concern.
“I am sure you are aware that there were questions about the ability of a 6-year-old to create such a polished and professional piece of art,” Laurie M. Shaffer, chief of the federal duck stamp program, wrote in a letter to the Grimms, returning Madison’s painting.
“Since we have the integrity and credibility of the program as well as the responsibility to 29,000 students, their parents and teachers, we are disqualifying the entry,” Ms. Shaffer wrote.
The agency pointed to two parts of the rules as potential violations: One was a section saying entries “must be the contestant’s original, hand-illustrated creation and may not be traced or copied from published photographs or other artists’ works.” The other section specified that “only work that is the unique creation of the individual student should be entered into competition.”
At another point the rules specifically say using photos the student took as a reference is acceptable.
Robert Lesino, who ran the duck stamp program from 1993 through 2001, said he was shocked that the current program officials wrote the letter disqualifying Madison, saying the explanation seemed thin to him.
He said the rules were meant to stop someone from taking a picture from the encyclopedia and tracing it, or tracing over a previous year’s duck stamp winner. He said graphite transfer from someone’s own unpublished photo was not meant to be outlawed.
“If you rub it with graphite and then put it on your canvas you’ve still got to do a heck of a lot of work to get that painting Madison got,” he said. “Those are all accepted artistic processes.”
For the uninitiated, duck stamps are a big thing. The winner’s painting appears on the annual federal stamp, which is the national government’s permit to hunt migratory waterfowl. The stamps are considered collectables, and the paintings they are based on become famous within the wildlife art community.
Mr. Lesino said winning the adult contest can be worth as much as $1 million in marketing rights for the artist.
Madison, who lives in Burbank, S.D. first won the South Dakota competition, then won the national contest in April — though her victory was rescinded several days later and the agency named runner-up Peter Coulter 17, of Washington, Mo., as the new winner.