Celebrating the Art, Culture and Ecology of Virginia’s River Realm.The exhibit hall offers visitors a fine array of waterfowl art. photos by Ann Eichenmuller
Outside, a black lab strains against her leash, then explodes forward on command as she demonstrates her retrieving prowess. Under the exhibition tent an artist carves patiently, and spectators watch in awe as a duck emerges from a block of wood. A few feet away, with the help of a volunteer, an eight-year-old boy proudly paints the finishing touches on a colorful decoy.
If you thought the Rappahannock River Waterfowl Show was just a small-town art exhibit, think again.
Nearly 80 exhibitors from Connecticut to Florida display their work at this annual event in tiny White Stone, Virginia (population 342), but that’s only a part of the story. The larger goal is to introduce visitors to the art, culture, and ecology of Virginia’s River Realm. Environmental groups like the Audubon Society and the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge use the show to educate participants about the fragile ecosystem of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Demonstrations by the Old Dominion Retriever’s Association and a carving contest sponsored by the Rappahannock Decoy Carver’s Guild highlight the role of hunting culture in tidewater life.
And all of this takes place against a backdrop of some of the most stunning wildfowl-related artwork on the East Coast.
“We do have a reputation for a good, high-quality show,” agrees co-chair Pat Bruce, who, along with husband William, has been organizing this event for nearly four decades.
Along with returning exhibitors, the juried show tries to include new artists each year. Watercolors, photographs, oil paintings, and wood sculptures are just a few of the offerings by exhibitors here. Bruce notes that organizers also strive for variety and the inclusion of reasonably priced pieces.
“Our goal is that anyone can come in and find something they can buy,” she adds.
Even if you don’t, every ticket-holder goes home with a print by the show’s Artist of the Year. All of the proceeds benefit the White Stone Volunteer Fire Department, but Bruce sees the Rappahannock River Waterfowl Show as having value to a much broader community.
“Last year, we had 2,500 visitors from thirteen states,” she says. “There are only two shows like this in Virginia, and it is something people from all over can come to enjoy.”
Despite the event’s popularity, Bruce worries that shows like this will become a thing of the past. She points with concern to the average age of exhibitors: “Not many young carvers or artists are doing this kind of work.”
Perhaps that will change. In 2017, an exhibitor who could not attend after a cancer diagnosis donated his space to be given to a newly emerging young artist. It was offered to Noah Hook, a Virginia Commonwealth University sophomore whose carvings reflect his Rappahannock River roots. He admitted the waterfowl show was not something he would have thought about entering at first, but it turned out to be so much fun he’s already been busily working on pieces for a possible return in 2018.
Pat Bruce is looking forward to the 2018 show for another reason. If construction is finished according to plan, it will be held in the brand-new fire station—the one that art helped to build.
Ann Eichenmuller lives on and sails from Virginia’s Northern Neck with her husband Eric.