Next year will be the twentieth year that the WASCO Award for the Most Artistic Entry has been offered to all state, regional, and national competitions. By next fall, over one thousand artists will have taken home that beautiful engraved acrylic trophy to proudly display on their mantle. Over $100,000.00 in gift certificates have been awarded to the winners. Over the past two decades, this award has become the most prestigious and sought-after accolade in the taxidermy industry. I cannot tell you how many times I have been told, “Winning the WASCO Award was the proudest moment of my taxidermy career!”
I was looking through some old photos and came across some shots that I made at the 1993 National Taxidermists Association in Richmond, Virginia. It is always dangerous for me to try and clean up old files, as I am easily distracted by things that trigger memories of the past. A photo of a mount by Mike Orthober that took me back to that July nineteen years ago. Mike didn’t know it at the time, but his mount was the reason that the WASCO Award came into being. This account has never been told, until I mentioned it to Mike a couple of years ago. Here is the true story of how the WASCO Award first got its start.
The Summer of 1993
The summer of 1993 was a momentous time of my life. Sallie Dahmes and I had just become the new owners of WASCO (Wildlife Artist Supply Company) and we wanted to do something dramatic in the industry to help distance ourselves from the previous management. Our first public exposure as new business owners was to be at the annual National Taxidermists Association convention, where Sallie served on the Board of Directors.
Bill Clinton had only been president for six months and the NTA convention was being held in downtown Richmond, Virginia. There were a lot of things about that week that stick out in my mind, most notably the infamous shootout by drug dealers outside the convention hall. I was inside the hall taking pictures of mounts with Larry Blomquist in the competition area. My wife and two young daughters were in the WASCO booth on the other side of the hall when Cindy Crane came over the loud-speaker and locked down the hall. My young daughters remember hiding under the booth tables in the trade show. This punctuated a strange culmination to the surreal quality of an already remarkable week.
Earlier in the week I realized that we were in a rough part of town when we asked the clerk at the front desk where the nearest liquor store was. He said it was around the corner and down the block, but cautioned us against walking there alone. Fortunately, Tom Sexton was handy so we borrowed his imposing presence to accompany Larry and I to the store as our unofficial bodyguard. Thanks, Tom.
The National Taxidermists Association Convention
There were lots of important firsts that week. It was the first time Rick Carter was awarded Taxidermist of the Year and People’s Choice at the Nationals (he would later win Taxidermist of the Year a record three times). Tom Powell was there promoting his new supply company with his sculptors Tom Sexton and Joe Meder. There was a piano in the hotel and it was the first time I ever heard Stefan Savides play in his wildly improvisational style.
The competition was phenomenal. Jean Roll won Best of Show with a frolicking trio of leaping auodad lambs. Tim Knight had a whitetail deer head in the back of a pickup truck bed with working tail lights. Rick Carter made a name for himself with a lifesize boar attacking two hunting dogs. Cally Morris won his first National Champion title with a turkey. The top three Division of Excellence whitetails were by Hilton Eppley, Bill Yox and Jim Hunsaker. Mike Gillis won a blue ribbon with a lifesize otter and John Bellucci won a blue ribbon with a rottweiler shoulder mount and a North American Champion title with a grey squirrel.
Mike Orthober’s Cape Buffalo
But there was one entry that I was drawn to that was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Mike Orthober of Wisconsin had entered a beautiful cape buffalo game head that literally blew me away. The buffalo was looking up, to the left and covered in mud. His shoulders seamlessly morphed into an oversize natural representation of a giant Cape buffalo horn which gracefully followed the curve of the composition down to the floor, where it was tastefully embedded into a smooth, black-lacquer base. It was original, it was unique, it was artistic, and it was compelling. I was sure that this would be the standout piece of the competition, soon to be featured on magazine covers throughout the industry.
But the game head judge thought differently, and he decided that there was not an entry worthy of a first place ribbon in the game head category of the Division of Excellence. Although Mike’s Cape buffalo was the highest scoring DOE game head in Richmond, the piece only received a second place ribbon. This meant that it would not even need to be photographed (at the time, only the first place entries were photographed). I was stunned.
The feeling of disappointment was like deja vu. After attending so many taxidermy competitions, I realized that in nearly every show there was a entry deserving of recognition as an artistic display, but for one reason or another, it would not place in the major awards, so there would be no recognition. I mentioned this to Sallie Dahmes and fortunately, she felt the same as I did. We thought it was time to reward the creative risk-takers who kept the competition circuit exciting to the viewers and the participants, who broke new ground and who kept raising the bar. We decided right then and there that we would offer an award for the Most Artistic Entry at every state, regional and national show the following year.
The WASCO Award
When we sat down to develop the judges guidelines, the words seemed to write themselves. Below are the original guidelines which haven’t changed in the past 19 years:
In every taxidermy competition, there are extraordinary entries which display a great deal of creativity and artistic appeal. Yet often these pieces, for one reason or another, go unrecognized with awards due to the nature of the rules or score sheets. It is for this reason that we have created the WASCO Award for the Most Artistic Entry. Along with this award goes a unique acrylic engraved trophy and a merchandise gift certificate.
The guidelines for choosing the winning piece are:
1. Exhibition of Taxidermy,
2. Creativity, and
3. Artistic Merit.
It does not matter which company’s supplies, mannikins, or paints are used in the piece.
The winning entry will be chosen by all of the judges from all taxidermy entries in the competition. All judges will pick their top choices from the competition according to the criteria listed below. If the judges wish, they may discuss their choices with each other, pointing out the appeal they find in their selections. After discussion, all judges will vote for the single entry to receive the WASCO Award for the Most Artistic Entry.
The judging criteria shall be as follows:
1. Exhibition of Taxidermy. The entry should tastefully display both the subject as well as the taxidermy profession in a favorable light. The taxidermy should be of good competition caliber, without any obvious flaws to the casual observer. The close scrutiny of a judge’s flashlight should not be as important as the overall impression of the piece from a normal viewing distance. The main requirement is that the animal portrayed looks “alive” to the viewer.
2. Creativity. Artists who try something new or difficult should be rewarded for their efforts. The concept of the piece should not copy previous winner’s ideas. Original ideas, successfully executed, should be given high consideration for this award.
3. Artistic Merit. The entry should be judged as a three-dimensional art piece, just like a painting or fine sculpture. Basic art concepts, such as composition, color, dynamic impact, contrast, texture, negative and positive space, and general artistic appeal should be carefully considered.
In order to allow the most taxidermists to compete for this award, a winning state entry shall not be allowed to win a second WASCO Award at another state competition. However, a winning state entry will be eligible to win a second WASCO Award at a regional or national competition.
The design of the award hasn’t really changed much since its inception. We wanted an award that had its own look and was immediately recognizable, like an Oscar. We must have hit the right note with the design, as I have had countless winners thank me for the award by proclaiming that it was just like receiving an Oscar for taxidermy.
We actually made all of the awards in-house, and it was quite a complicated procedure early on. We would begin by printing the artwork for each side of the award and creating a film positive of the artwork. Then we would vacuum the film to a sheet of photographic frisket material and expose it to ultraviolet light in a plate burning machine. After developing with chemicals, we had a frisket which had to be carefully applied to both sides of the acrylic blank. Then we used a sandblaster to etch the design and the words into the acrylic. It was a complex, messy project. Did I mention that each award had a different date and association name on it? That meant brand new artwork and friskets for each and every award.
Once the acrylic top of the award was cleaned and polished, we had to make the base. A rubber mold was filled with Corian counter-top material (resin impregnated with multiple colorants). Once this had set up. the part was removed, and sanded with successively finer grades of sandpaper and polish until we achieved a glossy finish. Then the parts were assembled, and a specially shaped piece of felt was glued to the bottom. After some cleanup and careful packaging, all that was left was to print the certificates, judges guidelines and a letter to include in the award shipment.
Since the Georgia Taxidermists Association had scheduled the first competition of 1994, the very first award went to William Lloyd Johnson, III of Washington, Georgia with a lifesize grizzly bear. Photos of hundreds of other WASCO Award winner through the years can be found on the WASCO website at www.taxidermy.com.
In 2011 when McKenzie acquired WASCO, I was pleased to see that they shared the same commitment to continuing with the legacy of the WASCO Award. McKenzie enthusiastically supports the tradition of rewarding and elevating the trailblazers in our profession, and they will maintain the WASCO Award into the future. I am fortunate to be associated with a forward-thinking company who still recognizes the importance of tradition in our industry.
July of 1993 was a month that stands out as a pivotal moment in my life. In addition to everything else going on, my brother suffered an aortic aneurism and almost died. After weeks in a coma, he had a miraculous recovery (he is now in his sixties, enjoying an active life with his grandchildren). July 1993 was the last month I ever read a book without bifocals (it was “Jurassic Park”). At the end of July 1993 I turned 40, and for my birthday, Gayle and I went to Louisiana to spend it with our best friends, the Blomquists. At the restaurant for my birthday dinner, a waitress slipped on a wet spot and fell to the floor with an enormous crash. Food and drinks went flying everywhere. The entire restaurant was startled, with people rushing about, but after all we had been through that month, to us it was no big deal. We just kept eating.