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Winning Water Colors

Fish art competition lures Texas students

Students in Jennifer Brooks’ art classes focus on fish during the first months of every spring semester.

Brooks teaches at Felix G. Botello Elementary School in south central Dallas. She works with kids from preschool through fifth grade. Every year, her school sends hundreds of entries to the Texas division of the State-Fish Art Contest sponsored by Wildlife Forever.

“From January to the end of March, that’s pretty much all that’s going on in my classroom,” Brooks says. Students use crayons and colored pencils to create pictures of fish in their watery habitats. “The little ones, I have them draw the Guadalupe bass. They need to know their state fish.”

Fourth- and fifth-graders are free to choose a different species. The contest website provides a list of the official state fish from each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Any of those fish are fair game for the contest.

Wildlife Forever is a national nonprofit that promotes conservation, education, and sustainable fish and wildlife management. The State-Fish Art Contest, launched in 1999, aims to inspire the next generation of conservationists by connecting art and science.

The contest is open to kindergarten through 12th-grade students in public, private and home schools. Entry deadline is March 31. Students may sketch, draw or paint a picture of a recognized state fish. Grades 4 and up are also required to send a one-page written composition about the fish. Winners are selected from four grade-level groups: K–3, 4–6, 7–9 and 10–12.

Texas entries are judged in Athens at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center, a hatchery and aquatic education facility operated by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The top 10 artists in each age group are invited to spend a day exploring the center and fishing at the on-site pond. First-, second- and third-place finishers receive scholarships and fishing gear.

Zoe Ann Stinchcomb, state coordinator of the contest, received more than 700 entries last year, she says. They come from cities, suburbs and small towns all over Texas. Students render fish in crayon, colored pencil, pen and ink, charcoal, pastel, watercolor and oil paint.

First-place winners advance to a nationwide competition, where judges pick the top three from each age group, plus an overall best of show. There’s a “Fish Make You Smarter” award for the best-written composition. In addition, Wildlife Forever chooses one piece of art each year for a commemorative stamp, which is sold to raise funds for conservation projects. In the past decade, three Texans have won that honor. The 2017 State-Fish Art Expo will be in Columbia, South Carolina.

Some kids have taken to the contest like fish to water. Nasa Xu, one of several repeat winners, graduated last spring from Cinco Ranch High School in Katy. She has won three first-place awards in Texas, starting with a sixth-grade entry in 2010.

In 2016, her mixed-media portrait of a largemouth bass on the hunt won best of show at the national expo.

For Xu, the art-to-science connection is obvious. “I enjoy studying the ecological part of it. When you draw something, sometimes you have to research what the fish eats and how it lives,” she says. Now a biology and pre-med major at the University of Texas at Austin, Xu hopes to add a studio art minor to her degree.

Kealey Yoakum attended the expo in 2014 after her freshman year at Warren High School. Her art teacher, Velena Whisneant, has mentored several State-Fish Art Contest winners, plus a handful of honorable mentions.

Yoakum is a senior this year and expects she’ll enter the contest again. “It was really wonderful to see all the artwork,” she recalls. Her pencil drawing of a longear sunfish was on the nationwide Wall of Fame with winning entries from all the other states.

Fellow Texan Brady King, a home-schooled student from Livingston, won the Art of Conservation Stamp Award that year. His family is a member of Sam Houston Electric Cooperative. A poster-sized print of his stamp, featuring a pair of Atlantic cod, was displayed front and center.

“Even though it wasn’t mine,” Yoakum says, “it made me proud.”

Dyanne Fry Cortez, a member of Pedernales EC, writes about Texas nature, culture and characters.