Painting has always represented a homecoming for Phillip Crowe, one of the nation’s foremost wildlife artists. With each alighting duck, poised whitetail deer, floppy-eared retriever puppy or familiar hunting spot he captured, Crowe shared with the world some of the things that have been most dear in his life spent outdoors.
He’s come by his subjects honestly. His earliest memories include tagging along with his father and grandfather hunting quail in southern Illinois. As an adult, he’d make annual pilgrimages from his home in Nashville to his preferred duck hunting grounds outside Augusta accompanied by his Labrador, Bear.
Alone except for the dog, Crowe had everything he wanted stuffed into his K5 Blazer. Everything, that is, except for what was to fly over the Delta morning sky, streaked bright pink and frosty gold by the hand of the master painter himself.
“I slept in (that truck) instead of going to a motel because I wanted to be in the Cache River at daylight,” Crowe said. “The dog and I would hunt until Sunday morning, then I would head home.”
“Hunt” is a relative term, for while Crowe has taken his share of ducks, over the years he’s found himself increasingly more captivated looking through a lens than squinting down a barrel. Puttering through the Black Swamp, he learned to take special note of environmental and waterfowl attributes and has shot far more with a camera than with a shotgun.
“It was so engaging for me from an artistic standpoint,” he said. “I would get down there to all those rice fields and all those bean fields backed up to Potlatch Timber. I’d pull that boat up there and I’d get out and walk. I just loved it. It was such a refreshing, wonderful thing.”
Crowe’s mother started him in art as the two would stay up late painting. Later, she urged him to attend Ringling School of Art in Sarasota, Fla., which he did en route to the advertising business.
In time, he’d establish his own agency but at a cost of indulging his love of the outdoors. Painting at night to unwind reminded him of how much he was missing, but also got him noticed and kindled demand for his work. By 1985 he decided to pursue his passion full- time.
“I got real lucky, to be honest with you,” he said. “When I started in the wildlife art business it was just starting to grow and blossom. Duck stamp programs were starting to happen. Wildlife art was starting to take on a whole new audience we never had before.”
Lucky or not, Crowe’s talent found steady demand and within four years, he would be commissioned to paint the 1989 Arkansas Waterfowl Stamp. Wingmead Mallards was the first of a record five Arkansas Waterfowl Stamps Crowe would complete during his career, the others coming in 1996, 2002, 2007 and 2010.
Crowe’s stature in the wildlife art world helped bring the Arkansas stamp program to national prominence. It also drove print sales, the proceeds from which help fund the work of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. All told, he’s been featured on more than 60 state duck, turkey and conservation stamps nationwide, raising untold millions for various entities.
Crowe was one of the first wildlife artists to master merchandising which augmented print sales, posters and commissions ranging from prestigious hunting lodges to President George H.W. Bush’s presidential library. But the business side of his vocation was only part of the picture. Crowe never lost sight of the importance of preserving the wild spaces and species that provided the backdrop, literally, for his life’s work.
“This environment is fragile; the balance is our responsibility and we must protect our outdoors for our children and our future,” he once said.
To that end, he regularly contributes to conservation groups such as Ducks Unlimited, The National Wild Turkey Foundation, Quail Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy, which have benefited from his paintings to the tune of several million dollars.
One such cause closer to home is the Chick Major Foundation which funds scholarships for winners of the Chick and Sophie Major Memorial Duck Calling Contest. Held annually during the Wings Over the Prairie Festival in Stuttgart, it is contested by high school seniors.
“All the proceeds and all the art and all the prints and everything went to the Chick Major Foundation so that those Stuttgart kids would have an opportunity to go to college,” Crowe said. “Did I raise millions of dollars to help the Chick Major Foundation? No. But I raised enough to help some kids get to school and go on to college.”
Crowe has been named a national Ducks Unlimited Flyaway Artist eleven times, twice National Wild Turkey Federation Artist of the Year, twice produced license plate designs for the Tennessee Wildlife Federation and was named 2015 Artist of the Year for the Iroquois Steeplechase.
In 2010, Ducks Unlimited listed him as one of the seven top waterfowl artists in America, having raised more than $330 million for the organization’s conservation efforts. Today, Crowe lives and works from his home studio in rural Franklin, Tenn.
“It’s all been a great treat for me,” he said. “Not just ducks, it’s the outdoors, it’s the environment, it’s the wildlife. I’m proud to be able to be a part of that. I feel lucky and blessed. Good Lord’s been good to me.”