Conservation starts in the hearts and minds of outdoorsmen but it also takes money, and lots of it, to ensure the hunting and fishing are here for the enjoyment of all and for generations to come.
That intersection of love of outdoors and business acumen necessary to pay for it is where Larry Grisham comes in.
Since 1961, his Jonesboro gallery Grisham’s Art has specialized in fine wildlife art and custom framing. Born of his love of the outdoors, the venture flourished among Grisham’s fellow enthusiasts for its first 20 years; but between 1982 and 2015 his role in wildlife art took on a much wider purpose.
Back then, Arkansas Game and Fish leadership director Steve Wilson tagged Grisham to head the year-old Arkansas Duck Stamp and Print program whereby he would be in charge of commissioning new designs every season for the state’s duck stamp, required of every hunter over age 16.
From that artwork, the idea was also to produce and distribute prints, with a portion of sales further augmenting AGF coffers for habitat conservation, specifically to buy into the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. Any state with a waterfowl industry reaps benefits from membership in that cooperative, which does extensive work protecting habitat. But in the 1980s there was a problem.
“We were broke, absolutely dead broke and we wouldn’t have had any money to participate if it wasn’t for this program,” Wilson told Greenhead magazine in 2010. “I don’t think people realize how many millions of dollars this has meant for our state and waterfowl program.”
Grisham, who split his time between the gallery and other business interests that included chairmanship of Heritage Bank Jonesboro, immediately saw the potential of the program, even if he didn’t know a lot about commissioning artists.
“I’m not entirely sure I knew what I was doing,” he told Greenhead, “but I’ve had some good teachers and I’ve been able to learn.”
Grisham’s concrete set of guidelines would separate Arkansas’ program from all other states’ duck stamp initiatives. First, he insisted on working with professional artists with a national reputation in wildlife art to ensure a finished work of highest quality. Over the years, he’s commissioned the likes of Maynard Reece, Phillip Crowe, Larry Chandler and many other renowned artists.
Second, Grisham maintained each year’s stamp scene should vary from the previous year. Not only did this make each work stand out to collectors, but it better reflected the diversity of habitat and hunting within the Natural State.
“What we try to do is really commemorate each print after an area, a wildlife management area or a well-known hunting club or spot in the state of Arkansas,” Grisham told Greenhead.
“We try to keep them true to the experiences people will have hunting in Arkansas.”
Finally, unlike the federal duck stamp program, which since 1934 has only featured a non-waterfowl subject once, Grisham gave artists the freedom to focus on hunting companions such as the occasional black lab or retriever. The resulting variety of habitat, bird species and canine subjects has broadened the appeal for the prints, which today can be found in sportsmen’s dens, business lobbies and even offices of ranking politicians throughout Arkansas and beyond, raising millions in the process.
“I had hoped it would become the premiere print program in the country, which it has,” Wilson said. “What Larry has done has meant a lot to a lot of people.”
The duck-hunting bug bit Grisham in 1952 and the condition only worsened over time. Though basketball interfered with duck season, he turned into a star player for Jonesboro High School, leading the team to an undefeated season and state title in 1954. He reported to Oklahoma A&M in 1955 on scholarship under hall of fame coach Henry Iba but, missing home, he transferred a year later to Arkansas where he would letter twice under coach Glen Rose.
The Razorbacks won the 1958 Southwest Conference title and appeared in the 16-team NCAA Tournament during Grisham’s tenure, but success on the court didn’t diminish his love for duck hunting. In fact, he kept a shotgun handy in his dorm room (something unthinkable today) to slip out to Lake Fayetteville before class during hunting season. By his estimate he spends 55 of the 60-day season hunting ducks these days in the state he loves to call home.
“The 60-day duck season that we have, it just transforms everyone. You go from wearing a suit to work to wearing your waders and hunting coat,” Grisham said. “That’s why I like it here; it’s not a snobbish state. There are a lot of powerful people that have come out of Arkansas and a lot of them come back to Arkansas. It’s just a great place to live.”