Cover Story

Natural Artist

by Bill Sherrod, Editor

 

When Carl "Spike" Knuth received this beautifully illustrated bird book at the age of 6, it ignited the passion of a natural artist.

 

If you’ve had even a passing interest in homegrown wildlife art the past 35-plus years, you likely know the name Spike Knuth.

Carl “Spike” Knuth has become the dean of wildlife artists in the Old Dominion. Since joining the state game commission (now the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries) in 1974, Knuth’s artwork has adorned everything from Virginia Wildlife magazine covers to state duck stamps to license plates.

And Knuth, whose Feathered Friends column has been featured in Cooperative Living since 2005, has a life story nearly as colorful as the brilliant watercolor illustrations he creates for his columns.

A Wisconsin Native Who Migrated South

Born in Milwaukee, Knuth grew up around the wildlife-rich lakes and marshes of southeastern Wisconsin. His nickname, “Spike,” was coined by his father, who saw the infant Carl flash a crooked smile and decided the grin was rather gangster-like. “Spike” was a popular gangster name at the time.“My dad was a technical writer, industrial designer, had six patents with Mercury Outboards, and did the work of a patent attorney (without letters) for Mercury Outboards and Kiekhaefer Aeromarine Motors for nearly 40 years. He was also a motorcycle enthusiast who briefly sold Harley-Davidson bikes,” says Knuth.

“I was 13 before my dad got his first car,” he recalls.  “In 1948, our family rode 1,500 miles in three days, and my baby sister came home from the hospital in 1951 on a Harley.” The family motorcycle actually accommodated four people: two on the bike seat, two in the specially made side car.

Perhaps all that fresh air rushing through his hair predisposed young Spike to a love of the outdoors. When his parents gave him his first book on birds at age 6, the course was set.

“The outdoors always fascinated me,” Knuth says. “Fishing and bird-watching, and then later, hunting, were my favorite things to do. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else for a living.”

Shortly after finishing high school, Knuth went to work for Mercury Outboard Motors in Wisconsin. For 11½ of the 13 years he worked there, he worked as a commercial artist, doing everything from photo retouching to signs and truck and boat lettering. In 1969, he took a job as a photographer at a local newspaper.

“I didn’t have any experience at that, but I was interested in photography,” says Knuth. “And while I was there, they started a television station and wanted to air an outdoor show. They asked me if I would do it, and I said yes.”

Knuth worked a little more than four years at the newspaper job, then freelanced a while — long enough to realize that freelance writing is a hard way to make a living.

“In December 1973, I got an interview for a job opening at the Virginia Commission of Game and Inland Fisheries,” says Knuth. “I went down to Richmond for the interview, and got the job. I started work there on Feb. 1, 1974.”

When he began work at what was then known as the game commission, Knuth was audio-visual supervisor in charge of film, projectors, and other AV-display equipment.

He ultimately became an information officer and did more and more artwork for Virginia Wildlife, as well as some writing and photography, co-hosted and produced a TV program, edited hunting and fishing guides, did the weekly Outdoor Report, did some short radio spots on WRVA for seven years, and supervised the Information Office.

 “I was like a kid in a candy store with wildlife-art ideas — center-spreads with turtles and frogs, birds, fish, all sorts of things.”

That variety of topics and subjects continued to evolve for more than 29 years until Knuth retired in June 2003. During that time he’d refined his writing and art techniques through his work for the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, art shows and contests, and other outlets.

A Lifelong dedication

“I consider myself a naturalist. I try to keep notes on all of my outdoor observations,” says Knuth. His home office is filled with outdoor journals dating back to his youth.

During high school, he took some art classes, but Knuth says he began painting in earnest in 1963, the year he and his wife, Susie, married. “Susie bought me a watercolor set. I started painting on an old porcelain table, in the musty basement of the duplex where we lived at that time.”

Nearly 50 years and more than 3,000 paintings and illustrations later, Knuth continues his chronicling of nature in words and images. Although now retired, he still contributes to outdoor publications such as Virginia Wildlife and Chesa­peake Style. His words and images grace the ever-popular Virginia Wildlife Calendar, and each year he participates in art shows in White Stone and Chincoteague Island on the Eastern Shore. He has donated more than 480 original paintings to Ducks Unlimited since 1967, and in 2005 DU awarded Knuth the Golden Teal Award for his contributions to the organization’s work toward preservation of waterfowl and waterfowl habitat.

“I don’t call myself an artist — I’m an illustrator,” he says. But many people familiar with his work would disagree and insist that Knuth is indeed an artist. He has won numerous awards for his artwork from organizations such as the Outdoor Writers Association of America and the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association. His favorite painting, “Yellowthroats,” made it into the Leigh Woodson Yawkey Art Museum display, a juried art show, where it was selected for a worldwide tour of art, and eventually was chosen as the cover art for an issue of the magazine Edinburgh Today, a Scottish publication.

How does Knuth capture the muse when he sets about creating his imagery? “I have notes and photos on many different ideas. I have a notebook with entries of things that I want to paint. For example, at some point in the past, I might have seen a big rock with grasses draped over it at the shoreline of a pond, and made a mental note, then a written note, that this would be the ideal setting for a northern water thrush. Sometimes, I’ll photograph the actual setting for future reference,” he adds.

“If someone gives me an assignment, I’ll do the research to fit the assignment,” Knuth continues. “My goal the last 12 years has been to learn as much as I could about flora (vegetation), reptiles, amphibians, fish, and mammals,” he adds. “I wanted the work to be as authentic as possible.” He says his wife, Susie, and their sons, Barry and Matt, all have artistic talents, and his brother, “Rocky,” and Rocky’s son, Joshua, both of Oshkosh, Wis., are also accomplished artists.

While he’s slowed down some in retirement, Knuth today is the same eager student of nature as when he received that first of many bird books from his parents back when he was only 6 years old. His love of nature and the sheer joy of being outdoors are what keep him going.

“Sometimes, I like to go out and just sit in one place for a long time. The birds and all of nature just forget you’re there, and they’ll come right up to you,” he notes.

“I’ve been drawing or painting birds since I was probably 6 or 7, but art was never my main interest. It’s just been a way I could share my love of wildlife,” he concludes.

Interested? Spike Knuth’s artwork can be seen at Windemere Art Gallery in Mechanics­ville, Va. (6162 Mechanicsville Turnpike; 804-730-0384) and Turner Sculpture and Art Gallery in Onley, Va. (27316 Lankford Hwy; 757-787-2818). Upcoming art shows include: Rappahannock River Wildlife Art Show, March 17-18, 2012, at the White Stone Volunteer Fire Department in White Stone, Va. (804-435-6355); and the Chincoteague Island Easter Decoy and Wildlife Art Show at Chincoteague High School, April 6-7, 2012 (for more info, call the Eastern Shore of Virginia Chamber of Commerce at 757-787-2460). Original artwork from his existing catalog, as well as commissioned pieces, may be purchased directly from Knuth at very reasonable rates. Email inquiries to the artist at knuth.wildlifeart@comcast.net. For more information, visit his website at: www.knuthwildlifeart.com.  

  

 

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