- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 2, 2003

WALDORF, Md. — The artist Robert “Robby” Bealle was ensconced on a couch, the family poodle pleading for attention. With a laugh Bealle said, “Ignore her. She won’t leave you alone if you don’t.”

Bealle, 51, the winner of this year’s Maryland migratory waterfowl conservation stamp art contest (and a previous winner, in 1994), scratches a graying beard when asked if he is a wildfowl artist, as some in a celebrated national cadre of “duck stamp” artists describe themselves.

“No,” he said modestly, “I’m a wildlife artist. If it’s wildlife, I try to paint it — and that includes birds.”

To reinforce his statement, Bealle pointed to one of his paintings, a breathtaking rendition of two red foxes digging through snow for a quick meal of meadow voles. Voles are mouse-like rodents, only more destructive on a farm where plants and roots of various kinds must not be gnawed on if they’re to survive and provide an income for the owner.

“I got the idea for this painting when I observed two foxes doing exactly what you see there on the canvas,” said Bealle.

Because of an earlier career as one of the best taxidermists ever, the Bealle name is a familiar one, especially with Southern Maryland hunters and anglers who continue to be in good supply in a part of the state that hangs on to its traditional rural life whenever possible. Although he hasn’t mounted a deer head or a bass in more than 20 years, people continue to ask if he’d be willing to make an exception and do honor to one of their memory-making fish catches. Bealle always declines, but he points out that painting techniques he developed on the fish he mounted helped immensely with his wildlife painting.

He lives on a farm that has been in the Bealle family since 1740 and if he has his way, it will continue that way for as long as there’s a Bealle breathing and willing to plow the soil.

As a self-taught artist, Robby Bealle would have been an enigma had he lived in the days of 18th century European painters whose poverty was a prime motivating agent. If they sold but one painting, there’d be baguettes, wine and cheese on the table. If Bealle sells a painting, it’s T-bone steaks and a swelling checkbook.

When he wins a waterfowl stamp contest, it’s time to call the tax accountant because now you’re talking some serious money even though the contest itself doesn’t promise cash awards. The money comes when prints are made of the winning artwork. They can sell fast, and once your name becomes known, regular paintings of any type will be displayed in local galleries and become desirable collector objects.

Bealle is remarkably open about money talk, mentioning that he made around $100,000 from his 1994-95 Maryland duck stamp win. That was only for starters. Things have gotten better since then. Besides Bernice, his wife of 30 years, his second great love of wildlife painting has added immeasurably to a very comfortable life.

“I started drawing when I was a kid,” Bealle said. “Every time I got a notebook for school, I’d fill it with sketches and doodles before school ever started. I never had a formal art lesson and didn’t get real serious until I was about 30.

“It happened when I was looking for a holiday greeting card with a bass on it but couldn’t find one,” Bealle recalled. “So I sketched my own, took it to a print shop and they did a personal greeting card for me. Everybody liked it and then I began to practice with pen and ink, eventually graduating to water colors, then to oil.”

Bealle entered his first Maryland migratory bird stamp art competition in 1981 without making a ripple, then entered the Interior Department’s federal waterfowl stamp contest in 1983. Of 1,582 entries, Bealle placed second. It encouraged him. Prestige was high, money waited to be made.

The winning entry is reproduced on a 1x2-inch stamp that must be carried by millions of waterfowl hunters, but there is no reward just yet. That comes when the artist sees up to 30,000 frameable prints made of his original rendition. Those are signed and numbered — some occasionally bear a remarque, a small original sketch that raises the price — then bought by collectors and hunters all over the world who never complain if one print costs $200 or more.

In the case of a Maryland duck stamp print, Bealle said around $140 will buy one.

Bealle pointed out that duck stamp winners usually donate about 50 signed and numbered prints to local Ducks Unlimited chapters that raffle them off to raise funds for conservation programs, but the rest are sold for hard cash.

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column every Sunday and Wednesday, and his Fishing Report every Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: [email protected]

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