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Artist draws inspiration from nature

Kensinger’s work named ‘Best of Show’ in state competition

Altoona artist Michael E. Kensinger places a bird box in wetlands near Tipton. Kensinger is inspired by nature and has received “Best of Show” in the 2021 Pennsylvania Waterfowl Management competition for his painting of wood ducks titled, “Sycamore Retreat,” which was made into a conservation stamp. Courtesy photo

For artist Michael E. Kensinger of Altoona, spending time in nature, creating art inspired by wildlife and caring for a Tyrone-area wetlands bring him joy and purpose.

Most notably, Kensinger received “Best of Show” in the 2021 Pennsylvania Waterfowl Management competition for his painting of wood ducks titled “Sycamore Retreat,” which was made into a conservation stamp.

The stamps by the Pennsylvania Game Commission are collected by hunters, birders and wildlife enthusiasts to support conservation. Proceeds from prints and stamps go to support wetland acquisition within Pennsylvania.

As the winning artist, Kensinger received $4,000, 100 artist proof prints and 200 stamps. He also had the opportunity to serve as judge for the 2022 contest in September.

“Although this is my first win ever, I continue to enter duck stamp contests on both state and federal levels,” he said. “This year, I entered the Michigan Duck Stamp Contest, as well as the Federal Duck Stamp Contest. While I did not win, I enjoy competing with my paintings and look forward to supporting these vital conservation programs each and every year.”

Altoona artist Michael E. Kensinger created this winning design and official 2021 PA Waterfowl Management Stamp Design “Sycamore Retreat.” Courtesy photo

His award-winning acrylic painting features a pair of wood ducks inspired by an encounter on the Ray Amato Trail behind Northern Blair Recreation Center in Tipton. “I knew I wanted to paint them (as his 2021 entry) as they are truly beautiful birds worthy of a stamp. Seeing these birds searching for an appropriate nesting habitat, which for a wood duck is a cavity in a tree, inspired me to begin a fundraiser for wildlife nest boxes which I call ‘Condos For Critters.'”

The fundraising effort raised $1,400, which Kensinger and other supporters used to purchase and place wildlife nest boxes in “Site 11” and “Site 12” of the PennDOT mitigated wetlands off the Grazierville exit.

“With the money raised, and with the help of some friends, I was able to place nine wood duck boxes, 21 bluebird boxes, one large bat box, two flying squirrel boxes and will be hanging two screech owl and one barred owl box very soon. The donations from the fundraiser went into supplies such as the boxes, screws, tools, posts, predator guards, spray paint, wood chips and more.

Kensinger hopes to do the fundraiser annually. Boxes are placed in the fall as many of the wildlife species begin eyeing them up for the following spring,” Kensinger said.

“This year, we had a lot of success with the bluebird boxes placed in March. All of the boxes were placed a little later than I hoped, but we saw a major increase of bluebird, tree swallow and house wren broods where the boxes had been placed,” he said.

"Oshidori," by Michael E. Kensinger (acrylic). Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

The boxes benefit many species, he said, bluebird boxes are widely used by tree swallows, chickadees and house wrens while wood duck boxes may be used by Eastern screech owls.

“It all goes back to the ecosystem, and the delicate balance of life around the wetland. I never oust a tenant, because in the end, they all rely on the nest boxes for survival when there is a shortage of tree cavities,” Kensinger said.

Tom Yocum, an environmental manager with PennDOT District 9 in Hollidaysburg, said Kensinger’s request to care for an area is rare — the district has one other caretaker in Huntingdon County.

“It is much appreciated as he is doing the community a great service by improving the natural places that we are fortunate to have in central Pennsylvania. Any habitat improvement work is usually demanding in terms of labor and time and the recipients aren’t able to say thank you. I am certain the wildlife appreciate his efforts to provide nesting sites and remove litter from their habitat,” Yocum wrote in an email.

Kensinger said, “I hope to bring an appreciation and desire to protect and conserve wildlife habitats for our posterity.”

Michael Kensinger's "European Nuthatch" (charcoal).

His love of the outdoors started early and fueled his artistic drive.

“I wanted to replicate what I was seeing. I would study the birds and learn their songs, and then when inside, I would draw and replicate my experiences.”

While largely self-taught as an artist, it was when Tyrone Area High School teacher Eric Feather allowed him, as a student, to work on art projects after school that made a huge impact. Kensinger, who walked home from school, lingered after the final bell to avoid bullies.

“He took me under his wing — no pun intended,” Kensinger said. “He would teach me different things, such as airbrushing techniques, that weren’t covered in class. It gave me a purpose and made a positive out of the negative of what happened to me.”

With Feather’s support, Kensinger entered his first waterfowl conservation competition — and took best of show out of 669 entries for his acrylic painting of his favorite duck, a blue-winged teal.

His state competition win forwarded him to the national competition where he placed in the top 10. The prize included a show with his winning entry displayed at the Eastern Waterfowl Festival in Ocean City, Maryland, followed by his entry being displayed at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

“The saddest thing was that I didn’t drive and couldn’t get there,” he said.

Undeterred, he continued to enter such competitions and will continue to do so as his ultimate goal is to win at the federal level because “it’s the Grammy of wildlife art. Artists usually make $1 million in sales during their first year of sales.”

Hollidaysburg resident Nicole Hartman met Kensinger in high school as participants in the Envirothon, an annual environmentally themed academic competition for high school students.

“I remember being amazed by him. He knew every bird call. That was his specialty,” she said, noting her specialty was trees and soils. She’s also a collector of his artwork, including a matted, framed and signed duck stamp that Kensinger personalized for her with a small hand painting under the print.

Her amazement continues today with his art.

“He’s only gotten better. Every time he does something new, I’m even more amazed. … He always improves and is now on a whole new level.”

The Kensinger file

Name: Michael E. Kensinger

Age: 37

Address: Altoona

Family: Husband, Timothy Settle; parents, Michael D. and Leslie Kensinger; brother, Tyler Kensinger, all of Tyrone

Education: Tyrone Area High School, 2002

Occupation: Artist

Awards: His work “Sycamore Retreat” received Best of Show for 2021 PA Waterfowl Management, commonly known as the duck stamp. Prints and stamps both are available by calling the Pennsylvania Game Commission at 888-888-3459 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday. Artist proofs can be ordered via email at MichaelKensinger@gmail.com.

On display

Two of Michael E. Kensinger’s artworks are on display at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art exhibition “Artists in Our Midst” through Dec. 22 at the Altoona gallery. They are “Oshidori,” a Mandarin duck done in acrylic, and “European Nuthatch” done in charcoal, both in his signature photo-realism style.

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