“Ducks at Dusk” by Thunder Mountain High School student Alain Soltys-Gray recently won best in show in the Alaska Junior Duck Stamp Contest. (Courtesy Image)

“Ducks at Dusk” by Thunder Mountain High School student Alain Soltys-Gray recently won best in show in the Alaska Junior Duck Stamp Contest. (Courtesy Image)

TMHS student earns top billing in duck stamp contest

Taking to the contest like a duck to water.

For the third year in a row, Alain Soltys-Gray stamped out the in-state competition.

Soltys-Gray, a Thunder Mountain High School junior, took top honors in the 2021 Alaska Junior Duck Stamp Contest, just as he did each of the past two years.

“It’s still a bit surprising,” said Soltys-Gray, who also earned a Gold Key and American Visions Award in the Scholastic Art and Writing Competition in the Alaska Region.

The Federal Junior Duck Stamp Conservation and Design Program includes all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories and is open to students through kindergarten to 12th grade, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It tasks with students with learning about wetlands, waterfowl and wildlife conservation as well as drawing or painting a duck, goose or swan to enter in a state-level contest. Winners then advance to a national-level contest.

Soltys-Gray’s piece was among 149 entries in the Alaska contest, which was judged virtually, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Alain Soltys-Gray paints during class at Thunder Mountain High School. Soltys-Gray recently took top honors in the annual Alaska Junior Duck Stamp Contest. It is the third time he has won best of show in the contest. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

Alain Soltys-Gray paints during class at Thunder Mountain High School. Soltys-Gray recently took top honors in the annual Alaska Junior Duck Stamp Contest. It is the third time he has won best of show in the contest. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

Soltys-Gray was introduced to the duck stamp contest by Thunder Mountain High School art teacher Angela Imboden, who he thanked for helping his art.

Imboden heaped effusive praise on her “super-motivated and talented” student — qualities she said combine for a package destined for success in the arts.

“What has been so fun as a teacher is to see how Alain composes his pieces,” Imboden said in an email. “He can take a blank canvas and without using reference photos, he can create a very realistic scene. This comes from all the paintings he has created already and from his love of being outdoors.”

Imboden said she’s been able to see Soltys-Gray grow as an artist over the years and is eager to see where another year takes her student.

“As a teacher, I get to watch his progress for one more year and am excited to see where his talent will take him,” she said. “Also, as a teacher, I have one more year to nag Alain about painting every vein of every feather on his next duck stamp entry.”

Despite the contest now being well-trod territory for Soltys-Gray, he said the it remains an enjoyable exercise.

“It’s fun to paint ducks realistically,” Soltys-Gray said, adding that a fondness for feathered fowl is not just a byproduct of the contest.

“I really think birds are cool,” Soltys-Gray said. “It amazes me that they can fly.”

He said he likes to depict a new type of duck each year — this year’s best of show-winner “Ducks at Dusk” depicts two mallards — and estimated that each piece takes 30-40 hours to complete. This year, Soltys-Gray submitted two pieces for the contest. That works out to be roughly the equivalent of three full days of detailed duck artwork.

“I guess the hard work pays off in the end,” Soltys-Gray said.

Alain Soltys-Gray holds up the award-winning piece “Ducks at Dusk” and a purple ribbon at Thunder Mountain High School. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

Alain Soltys-Gray holds up the award-winning piece “Ducks at Dusk” and a purple ribbon at Thunder Mountain High School. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

While Soltys-Gray is a multi-time winner at the state level, his work has yet to appear on a stamp — that distinction is reserved for the young artist who takes top honors in the national contest. This year, Madison Grimm of South Dakota’s design featuring a wood duck won the top spot in the national contest.

Stamps bearing the design are planned to be for sale on June 25, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

While Soltys-Gray’s design won’t grace stamps this year. Next year, presents another opportunity.

And what would he think if his design made its way to a stamp?

“Honestly, my mind would be blown,” Soltys-Gray said.

Birds of a feather

Soltys-Gray wasn’t the only duck stamp award-winner from Juneau.

Other winners listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as hailing from the capital city include:

7-9th grade: Georgia Post, first place

10-12th grade: Tyler Johnson, honorable mention; Isabella Hannah, honorable mention and Conservation Message Award; Tasheena St. Clair, honorable mention; Jetta Hosiner, Adam Bishop and Connor Blackwell third place; Mary Neal Garcia and Mary Khaye Garcia second place; and Elise Magalhaes, first place.

• Contact Ben Hohenstatt at (907)308-4895 or bhohenstatt@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.

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