I just returned from a jam-packed week at the NTA Convention in Rogers, Arkansas. My son-in-law, Sam, suggested that I do some live blogging from the NTA Convention for this week’s edition of Ken’s Corner. He said live blogging from big events is all the rage on this new internet thingy, so I thought I would give it a whirl. But try as I might, I never had enough free time during the convention, so my live blogging plans were abandoned.
I arrived Tuesday, July 17 at the Embassy Suites in Rogers, Arkansas in the evening after a long car ride with Larry and Kathy Blomquist. I was immediately impressed with the quality of the hotel. The hotel and the attached convention center was easily the best facility I have ever attended for an NTA show. Everything was top-notch, the staff was friendly and helpful, and the community was great as well. Embassy Suites is an all-suites hotel with complementary cocktails in the afternoon and a cooked-to-order breakfast in the morning. The hotel has a nine-story atrium with a huge skylight at the top which provides both light and ambiance.
I was pleasantly surprised with the beautiful community of Rogers. Arkansas wasn’t anything like one might expect from watching “Call of the Wildman” on Animal Planet. Great food, friendly people everywhere, a very nice community with all the amenities of a big city but with none of the big city attitude. We went to dinner at a restaurant on the other side of town and our server was genuinely excited to have visitors from the big taxidermy convention.
On Wednesday morning we woke up to a complementary breakfast and said hello to many old friends in the lobby. Volunteers from all over the country were busy setting up tables and backboards at the convention center. The competition area was one giant room with tables around the edges and backboards in a semicircle along the back wall. I did not know how they were planning to fill up a space like this with mounts, but Joe Kaiser and Mitch Webb had a plan.
Larry Blomquist and I set up the photography area and made sure all of the equipment was working properly. After lunch, it looked like we were ahead of schedule so we took a couple of hours to go visit Crystal Bridges Art Museum with Joe and Peg Meder. Even though it is not very well-known because it is so new, Crystal Bridges houses the best collection of American art outside of Washington or New York, and it is less than five miles away from the convention center! This brand new museum is a half-billion dollar gift from Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton. It is host to a spectacular assortment of paintings and sculptures by virtually every noteworthy American artist. From Peale, to Remington, to Seargent, to Rockwell, to Lichtenstein, we were amazed at the breadth and quality of the collection. I remembered many of the painting from my art history classes in college. Seeing the amazing architecture of the building and grounds was worth the price of admission alone. And speaking of admission prices, it was FREE, underwritten by Wal-Mart which has its home office here. I will definitely plan to revisit Crystal Bridges Museum when then NTA returns to Arkansas in 2014.
At 5:00, the competition officially opened and the entries started coming through the door. At the NTA, every entry is photographed as it comes into the competition area, so Larry and I got to see each piece as they came in. There were some very impressive entries, most of them creative and artistic, as well as many large floor-standing works. As the room began to fill with these large pedestal mounts, I realized that Joe and Mitch’s plan for the unusual layout would work well.
Arkansas native John Creager welcomed us to his state by barbecuing a hog and sneaking it into the foyer outside the competition room for everyone there to feast upon. John had provided all the fixings, sauce, bread and meat for anyone who wanted it, and it was definitely welcomed by the NTA volunteers who were working late into the evening. This surprise dinner was not authorized, and would probably not have even been allowed, but sometimes it is easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission.
I got to meet several Forum members for the first time. Kay Raynewolfe was there with her service dog Shadow (pictured at right–not a mount by the way). She brought a squirrel mount to her first competition, which won a third place ribbon. Brian Noody from New York entered four fish that I was very impressed with. The judges agreed, and Brian took home many of the top awards from the show.
As usual, politics were hot and heavy during the Tuesday board meeting, but the feeling among general membership during the convention was very upbeat and cordial. This was the largest gathering of taxidermists at the NTA for the past few years, and the best collection of mounts. Everyone got along with everyone else. There were smiles everywhere you turned.
It was a family affair with a down-home atmosphere. Many of the younger crowd brought their children with them for a summer vacation, while many of the older crowd brought their parents along. Mitch Webb came with his mother, Brian Noody brought his father, and Cindy Crane came with both her mother AND father. There was plenty to keep the kids busy. The NTA always had a full schedule of children’s seminars and activities to make entertaining the youngsters an easy task.
Bobby Lofton ran the trade show. With his trademark black cowboy hat and broad smile, Bobby could make anything happen and solve any problem with ease. The trade show was busy this year, with many suppliers reporting the best sales in five years.
The election results for the new officers and board were announced at the Friday night meeting. As expected, John Janelli was elected president, Joe Kaiser Vice President, Carol Janelli Treasurer, and the four new board members were Mike Briganti, Mitch Webb, Archie Phillips and Russell Knight.
It was an honor to meet Russell Knight, the star of The History Channel’s “Mounted in Alaska”, a show which has probably done more to bring a positive awareness of our craft to the general public than anything in the past 50 years. Russell was treated like a rock star, with everyone wanting to speak with him and have their picture taken with him on their cell phone. Even after hundreds of these photos, Russell remained extremely cordial and friendly, talking to everyone as he seemed genuinely pleased to be meeting all these new taxidermists. He was very approachable, making all of his new friends feel at ease as he handled the demands of the crowds and paparazzi effortlessly.
Russell Knight presented a new award, the “Mounted in Alaska Award” at the banquet Saturday night. He also received this year’s President’s Award and he gave an impromptu acceptance speech about the public perception of taxidermy which resulted in a prolonged standing ovation.
But that wasn’t the only standing ovation of the night, however, as Joe Kasier began the evening by inviting up all World War II and Korean War veterans to the front of the room to present the United States flag. Veterans Bill Haynes, William Hale (Cindy Crane’s dad), and Audie Crabtree were joined on stage by Brian Noody, who was in the World Trade Center in New York on 9/11 when it was hit. These heroes, the last surviving members of the Greatest Generation, lead the crowd of 200-plus in the Pledge of Allegiance and the Star Spangled Banner and received a spontaneous and heartfelt ovation.
Mitch Webb had a big night. In addition to receiving the Director of the Year Award, he won the Master’s Choice Award for his dramatic depiction of a Dall sheep taken by his close childhood friend, Senior Chief Thomas A. Ratzlaff. Mitch did a lot of taxidermy work for Tommy, and had this head in his shop when his friend, a member of Seal Team VI, was killed in Afghanistan with 21 other Special Operations Group members had their Chinook helicopter taken out by an RPG. As a tribute to his fallen friend and hero, Mitch completed his Dall sheep head with a symbolic scene which included a trident, hat, dog tags, Seals honor pin, and a replica of the Alaskan rock from the hunt made from the photo taken when CPO Ratzlaff took his trophy.
Brian Noody also had a big (no, HUGE) night. He brought four fish to the show and won a record THREE national champion titles (National Champion Warm Water Fish Skin Mount, National Champion Warm Water Fish Reproduction, and National Champion Cold Water Fish Skin Mount), the Tohickon Award of Distinction Challenge of the Art of Taxidermy, the New Wave Award, and the Polytranspar award. His fish were gorgeous! Everyone who walked by them stopped in their tracks to take them in.
Some other big winners were Billy Ollie of Louisiana and Ken Bauman of Oklahoma. They both completed their trifecta of major awards, adding the “North American Champion” title to their existing National and World Champion honors. A list of the major award winners with photos cane be found here: The 2012 NTA Winners Gallery.
All and all, the National Taxidermists Association’s 2012 convention was a positive experience. I was left with the impression that some of the malaise of the past few conventions was finally lifting, and people were genuinely excited to be a part of this special gathering of friends, associates, and like-minded artisans.