EVANSVILLE — Melby artist John House is a duck guy at heart.
He was 8 when he tagged along with his dad on a hunt for the first time. Almost from that day, House has been able to close his eyes and envision everything that waterfowl hunters love about sitting in a duck blind. He has long been able to put brush to canvas and paint a waterfowl scene simply from memory.
It wasn’t until recently that he could say the same about walleyes. It took the Department of Natural Resources creating a walleye stamp contest in 2008 before House delved into that underwater world.
Having already won the DNR duck, pheasant, turkey and trout contests, House was driven to become the first wildlife artist to win all five of the Minnesota stamp contests. He failed three times in those attempts before painting the winning walleye entry in 2012.
“I’m in position now where I can do a pretty mean walleye without the struggle,” House said from his studio in Evansville last week. “I’ve done enough. I lost the first one, second one, third one before winning the fourth. I got a little bit of walleye work under my belt. Now the data is in my mind.”
It was that winning entry from the 2012 DNR contest that caught the eye of people at Cabela’s when they were searching for art for their 2014 spring master catalog. House received a call from Cabela’s last fall when he agreed to create a similar piece for its cover.
The walleye stamp had to stand on its own for the customers who purchased that print, so House made some changes. The walleye featured on the cover of the Cabela’s catalog has a tail that is swinging away from the viewer instead of toward him. The log has been dropped and the rock structure is different.
House had almost two months to work on the cover piece. That created some nervous moments for someone who admits he is not a fast artist. Around Thanksgiving, House had a piece he was happy with and one that Cabela’s was excited to send to millions of customers.
“This is an honor,” House said. “I will call an accomplishment where I am going head to head, for example the federal duck stamp. I’ve never placed higher than 11th out of 264. Head to head competitions, you win that, that’s an accomplishment. This is a tremendous honor to me.”
Like every artist, it is House’s imagination that never let him settle and has allowed him to experience success in his career.
He started out as a carver and sold more than 500 duck decoys before he became a painter. House would sit in a duck blind and feel the wind and listen to the waves. He watched the sun rise over the water as the sky came to life with waterfowl.
“These are powerful, emotional things,” House said. “I wanted to paint them and relive it, so I switched from carving. My poor banker. My poor wife. Why was that the right time? It wasn’t. It had nothing to do with timing. I wanted to do it.”
Now at age 57, he is at a similar point in his career. House is shifting his focus from wildlife to dogs and portraits. Once again, he’s entering into the unknown, and he’s ready to see how many of his fans will follow him there.
“I am excited,” House said. “It’s going to be fun to see what happens. I’m about to swim where I can’t touch bottom. We’ll find out. Me and my wife will find out together.”
House’s wife, Barb, has been through this with him before. House says he got more than one phone call from his banker during his transition from decoys to painting. Slowly but surely, he experienced success on his way to becoming an award-winning bird and walleye artist.
House isn’t leaving the outdoor world that has been so good to him in his career. He’s simply shifting focus to other aspects of the hunt.
“It’s not an abandonment of the field,” he said. “I’m just going from painting what was hunted and what was fished for, to the hunter and the fisherman. I’m shifting subject matter, but it’s in the same culture of hunting and fishing. This isn’t a cold turkey deal.”
House had toyed with making this jump for years. Finally, he couldn’t ignore the urge any longer.
“In life, we often fear the unknown,” he said. “You would be amazed how many years this has been coming. You’re catching me in the middle. I’ve got one foot in the pond. It took me years to get the courage because I didn’t want to leave what I knew. I was scared, but I’m not scared anymore.”
All it took was a little success to boost his confidence. House has already sold some of his dog paintings and portraits, and he says the reaction has been good in the early stages of this switch.
House says he will continue to paint birds until the day he dies. Ducks are simply a part of him, but they won’t be his focus going forward.
It took a while before he was ready to paint a winning entry of a walleye, but through hard work and imagination, he got there. Now he has seen a similar process play out during the latest move in his career.
“Those are good dogs,” House said as he pointed to some of his work in his studio. “That’s a good portrait of my daughter. As it turns out, I’m not half bad at it.”