Terry Redlin remembered as conservationist, artist, hunter

PIERRE (AP) -- In the early 1980s a little-known artist who painted scenes full of ducks, geese, deer and pheasants donated an original work to his local Ducks Unlimited banquet as an auction item.

PIERRE (AP) - In the early 1980s a little-known artist who painted scenes full of ducks, geese, deer and pheasants donated an original work to his local Ducks Unlimited banquet as an auction item.

That simple action turned the wildlife art world on its head and launched the artist's career. He would eventually go on to be named America's most popular artist for seven years in a row and during his career would help raise an estimated $40 million to $50 million dollars for conservation organizations such as Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever.

His name was Terry Redlin.

"I call him the pioneer of wildlife art for Ducks Unlimited." said John Green, a wildlife artist based in Madison, South Dakota. "It was an inspiration to all the artists that there was a market out there."

Redlin died in late April after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer's disease. He was 78.


Redlin started his professional life as a commercial artist. He'd gone to art school on a state scholarship for students with disabilities because he'd lost a leg in an accident as a teenager.

In 1977, he switched to painting wildlife scenes, said Terry Redlin Art Center Director Julie Ranum. Redlin moved back to where he grew up Watertown and started painting. A few years later he donated his first painting to Ducks Unlimited. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Redlin was named the Ducks Unlimited artist of the year in 1983. His work was featured in the organization's magazine and local chapters received limited edition prints of his work to sell at their annual fundraising banquets. Those banquets were the backbone of Ducks Unlimited's fundraising model.

The prints of Redlin's work often sold for nearly $1,000, said Green, who was just starting out in the wildlife art business at the time.

"It was just unbelievable," he told the Capital Journal (  ). "It brought people to the banquets just to buy his paintings . People were fighting over his pictures."

The bidding wars over Redlin's artwork often led to multiple sales of the same prints, said Sarah Kohler of Wild Wings Art Gallery in Lake City, Minnesota, which sells Redlin's art. Local chapter presidents often would agree to sell prints to unsuccessful auction bidders at the same price the winner paid.

That kind of demand for prints was something no one had seen before, Green said. Redlin pioneered a new model for selling and promoting wildlife artwork. In the beginning, Kohler said, Redlin donated his work outright. But by the mid-1990s he'd started splitting the profits from his paintings and prints with Ducks Unlimited and other conservation groups too, she said, though the most Redlin ever took was 25 percent. Usually it was less than that, Kohler said.

About the time Redlin was starting his career as a wildlife artist, John Cooper, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent and Ducks Unlimited member, found himself stationed in South Dakota. He was working in northeast South Dakota around the start of the state's early teal season, which has since been closed. Then South Dakota State University professor Al Wentz suggested that Cooper should meet an up and coming artist by the name of Terry Redlin.


Cooper and Redlin decided to go out for a teal hunt one morning near Horseshoe Lake. It wasn't the greatest hunt either of them had ever been on but there were birds to be had, Cooper said years later.

There was one odd thing about it, however.

"He was always looking at the light," Cooper said of Redlin.

That was the only time Cooper and Redlin hunted together but they got to know each other pretty well over the years between conservation projects and fundraising efforts. Redlin's love of the outdoors was unparalleled, Cooper said. It was a love that never flagged in all the years he knew Redlin.

"He moved back to Watertown to hunt and fish," Cooper said. "People forget that."

Since that first teal hunt, Cooper has gone on to helm the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department and was appointed to sit on the Game, Fish and Parks Commission. Those positions along with his work through the years with Ducks Unlimited has given him a bit more insight on the impact Redlin's work has had on conservation efforts in South Dakota.

Every time a Redlin painting or print was sold at a DU banquet and a few that Redlin sold through his gallery added to the pot of money the organization could use to fund habitat projects. Kohler said over the years Redlin's work raised around $34 million for DU alone.

Organizations such as DU typically use their privately raised money to match public funding from government agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Much of that money comes from excise taxes called for in laws such as the Pittman-Robertson Act.


"This is where sportsmen made a huge gain from Terry Redlin," Cooper said.

In some cases the money raised by Redlin's artwork could be used to obtain as much as nine times the amount of money that was privately raised, Cooper said.

Money Redlin helped raise for conservation would have been spent in one of three ways. The first was buying land outright to preserve habitat and provide access for hunters. The second was helping the federal government buy perpetual conservation easements on land to preserve native landscapes and the third was leasing the land and working with landowners to improve the habitat on it.

"I think everybody would know that if you're going to be a common sense conservationist you're going to have to work with landowners," Cooper said.

The Mickelson Memorial Marsh Game Production Area west of Estelline in Hamlin County, Cooper said, is a good example of DU working with the federal government, state government and local landowners.

"Money Terry Redlin helped raise was at the heart of that project," Cooper said.

Redlin's early success at conservation organization banquets inspired other artists, such as Green, to work with conservation groups too.

"He was the first one to really do that," said Sioux Falls based wildlife artist Mark Anderson.

Anderson donates paintings to groups such as DU and the National Wild Turkey Federation for auction at their banquets.

Green said Redlin's work with conservation groups helped create a market for limited edition prints, which made being an artist a bit less of a struggle.

"I was there when it all started, I was one of those struggling artists," Green said.

Green too, now donates paintings to conservation organizations.

"I think the world is really going to miss him," Anderson said. "Conservation is going to miss him."

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