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Courtesy Lee Walker, DGIF
Wildlife artist Spike Knuth, shown doing what he loves.
Tuesday, September 10, 2013
Before the Robertson family and Duck Dynasty, there was Spike Knuth. No, Knuth doesn't have a beard, but he shares an interest in ducks and other wild creatures and the habitats where they live. He also is a man of family and faith.
If you've ever read a copy of Virginia Wildlife or viewed one of the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries birding and wildlife trail guides, read the agency's online outdoor report, or thumbed through an issue of Cooperative Living Magazine, chances are you've seen Knuth's artwork.
He also has 80 magazine covers to his credit, five state duck stamps and is behind the images on the DMV wildlife license plates. He even designed Virginia's lifetime hunting and fishing licenses.
For decades the quiet-spoken man has been one of the most prolific artists in the state. What many people don't know is he's also been one of the most generous.
Every year when the annual Hunters for the Hungry banquet is held in the Roanoke Valley, I ask my old friend Spike to donate a piece of art that our banquet committee can auction off to raise money for processing deer to feed the hungry. He never fails me.
And mine isn't the only request, by a long shot. Since the mid-1960s, Knuth has donated over 475 original paintings and 100 prints to Ducks Unlimited and other conservation organizations.
Knuth retired as artist/writer/film maker/public relations specialists for the DGIF on June 1, 2003, a few months shy of 30 years of service. At age 76, he is as busy as ever. About the only difference I see, he doesn't commute to the office every day. He paints at his home in Mechanicsville, where his wife of 50 years, Susie, maintains vegetable and flower gardens that Knuth describes to his friends in lavish detail.
Landing a job at DGIF headquarters in Richmond was a dream-come-true for Knuth. And it came in the nick of time. He lived in Wisconsin, where the lakes and marshes spurred his interest in wildlife at an early age. His parents bought him a bird book when he was 6. He began hunting at age 16. When he went to his first Ducks Unlimited dinner with his dad, he was enthralled by the original art being auctioned and the artists who crafted it. A few years later he donated his first piece of art to Duck Unlimited, at a time when he could have used the money himself.
He was down on his luck when the DGIF offer came in January, 1974.
"I had no job," Knuth said." We were totally broke. I had two little boys and a wife to support."
Before coming to Virginia, he and his family were forced to move five times in two years, pilling up a huge credit card debt.
"But we trusted in God; believed He would pull us through," Knuth said. "We worked hard, too, and never gave up. Persistence pays and so does prayer."
Knuth had written 68 letters to various state agencies and publications trying to get a job as an artist. No luck. He felt his lack of a college education was holding him back. So he studied everything he could put his hands on that related to wildlife, writing and photography.
And he painted.
"I sold my first magazine cover-a gray trout-to Southern Outdoors in 1964, followed by two more to Fur-Fish & Game in 1965," he said. Knuth also sold covers to Virginia Wildlife, while he tried to make a living by freelancing and doing odd jobs.
"Fortunately, they (DGIF) looked at my talent and knowledge rather than the fact that I had no college education. That wouldn't happen today."
Going to work at DGIF was so much fun that he never missed a day, piling up 46 weeks of sick leave.
Spike Knuth's contribution to the Hunters for the Hungry banquet in Roanoke Saturday is an original watercolor of a white-throated sparrow perched on a winter magnolia. The banquet begins 5:30 p.m., with dinner about 7 p.m. The location is the Roanoke Moose Lodge #248, at the base of Catawba Mountain on Virginia 311 (3233 Catawba Valley Drive, Salem.) Tickets, $25 for single; $40 for a couple (children under 12 free), are on sale through Friday at the Sportsman's Warehouse in Roanoke.
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