Easton waterfowl fest, a bird call to art, tourism

Affair: The Talbot County town welcomes the return of Canada geese in a 3-day celebration with artists, bird callers and retrievers.

November 12, 1999|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

EASTON -- It's almost time for the granddaddy of East Coast waterfowl art shows, and Susie Carpenter, Nancy Thomas and dozens of others are feverishly whipping out wreaths, floral centerpieces and decorative sprigs of all kinds.

Starting today, as it has on the second weekend of November for nearly three decades, the town of Easton will give itself over to what locals refer to simply as "waterfowl."

That would be everything from waterfowl carvers, waterfowl painters and waterfowl sculptors to waterfowl callers and waterfowl retrievers.

And that's not counting the real thing -- thousands and thousands of migrating Canada geese honking across the sky in perfect chevron formation, feeding in soybean and corn fields or bobbing in every available stretch of marshy water.

Outside the old armory, which serves as headquarters for the festival, are stacks of cuttings and boughs from trees, bushes and marsh grasses -- the raw materials for decorations that will adorn 18 galleries and display sites all over town this weekend.

"It's amazing," says Thomas, a 19-year festival veteran and one of about 100 people on the decorations committee. "People plan their fall pruning just so they can bring us everything for this week."

The festival, founded in 1971, has funneled millions of dollars to habitat and wildlife conservation programs throughout the Atlantic Flyway, which stretches from northern Quebec to Florida. A celebration of the annual return of the wintering birds, the three-day event has become a seasonal benchmark in Talbot County.

In a town of 11,000, "waterfowl" has become a year-round enterprise with three full-time staffers, an 18-member board of directors that oversees more than 50 committees responsible for everything from judging the art to providing transportation and security to printing tickets for nearly 20,000 tourists who turn out every year.

All told, the festival has a cadre of 1,300 volunteers in a county whose population is about 34,000.

"Most of the decision-making is left in the hands of the volunteers," says Ann White, a former festival executive director who is now its part-time marketing chief. "We've always felt that we get a lot more creativity and energy by letting people handle things themselves. The volunteers are really the core of everything."

Even schoolchildren get a break. Public schools are closed for two days, clearing space at Easton's middle and high school for many of the 450 artists who finished setting up their work yesterday. A fleet of 16 county school buses has been contracted to shuttle festival-goers to and from parking lots on the edge of downtown, where major streets will be blocked off this weekend.

"I doubt that anyone who's not involved has any idea of the logistics, but there's just something about people pulling together that makes it fun, makes people look forward to helping out," says Joan Crowley.

She volunteered to work a couple hours at one gallery after moving to town in 1989. Now, Crowley is a festival vice president who oversees a temporary art gallery set up each year in one of the festival's largest spaces, the Elks Club auditorium.

In addition to carving, wildlife painting and sculpture of native species, the festival has expanded to include landscape paintings, and works that depict animals from the American West and Africa. Artists from throughout the United States and Canada make the trip to Easton. Artwork can run from a few dollars to as much as $30,000.

Tallahassee, Fla., artist Stanley Proctor is making his 20th trip to the festival. A former painter, he's now sculpting in bronze, and his works are among the higher-priced pieces being shown at the Avalon Theatre.

"I came here when I first got started because it was the mecca and it still is," says Proctor. "If you wanted to be somebody in wildlife art, this was always the place to be."

This year, festival organizers have added events designed to appeal to families, including retriever demonstrations, duck- and goose-calling competitions and fly fishing demonstrations.

Food, especially Eastern Shore favorites such as crabs and oysters, will be available from about a dozen civic and community groups.

Tom Adams, an insurance agent whose firm handles the policy that covers the festival, remembers when two local sportsmen, Bill Perry and Harry Walsh, first came up with the idea of staging the festival and donating the proceeds to wildlife conservation.

The first festival had 50 artists at three exhibit sites and drew about 4,000 visitors and raised about $7,500. Nobody worried about insurance.

"We started out with a $2,500 loan from the local chapter of Ducks Unlimited and it just mushroomed from there," Adams says. "It's still just a bunch of people getting together in a nice little town. It's evolved into a world-class show because everybody takes a job, everybody pitches in."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.