Frank Stick

Prize Catch, by Frank Stick. All images courtesy of the coeur d’alene art auction, hayden, idaho.

STICK STARTED LIFE IN HURON in today’s South Dakota, where his father was president of the First National Bank of Dakota. He recalled the bisonbone-littered prairie of his youth, and hooking catfish in the backwaters of the James River and pike in its channels. When Stick was seven, the family moved to Sioux City, Iowa, where as a teenager he spent summers camping and living off the land, fishing crappies in the lakes and prowling murkier waters for channel catfish or the now rare pallid sturgeon; he hunted and trapped small game, and bagged ducks and geese.

In 1899, the Sticks decamped again, to Oglesby, a rural coal-mining town in Northern Illinois, where Frank’s father and brother ran a grocery store owned by the Bents Coal Mine Company. Wanting to become a naturalist and live outdoors, Stick collected bits and pieces of birds and critters, and worked alongside a taxidermist for several years, learning animal anatomy. When not earning his keep as a stock and delivery boy, he fished from his homemade birch-bark canoe on the Illinois, Vermilion, and Middle Fork Vermilion Rivers, which convinced him he preferred forests to walls.

So he headed to northern Wisconsin, where he guided fishermen and hunters, and worked as a camp cook for a lumber company. He also started using his God-given talent to draw animals, fish, and frying pans entangled with sportsmen. When he saw other fellows earning money from writing hunting and fishing tales, he put words to his images and sold his first story to Sports Afield in 1904, after a four-month course at the Art Institute of Chicago—his only formal art education. (A selftrained ichthyologist, later in life he corresponded with scientists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the classification of amberjacks.) He did his one and only cover for Sports Afield in 1905, but they published eight of his articles in 1906 alone, five with his own illustrations. In 1906, with these credits under his arm, Stick headed to Wilmington, Delaware, having been accepted by America’s most famous illustrator, Howard Pyle (1853–1911), into his informal Brandywine “school” of art, so named for the river in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, where his students formed a summer art colony.

For three years, Stick listened to Pyle’s meaty pronouncements aimed at guiding his artists to the deeper meaning of their narrative paintings: “Paint ideas, paint thoughts,” he urged. “Feel the wind and rain on your skin when you paint it.” Stick also learned how light influences colors and together with shadow defines form, distance, and texture. While there, he married the much-appreciated 18-year-old artists’ model Ada Maud Hayes. Soon he was doing covers for Leslie’s Weekly Illustrated, and the artwork for an outdoor action series for boys in St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks, as well as a stream of covers and stories for Field & Stream.

The Big Northern, by Frank Stick. All images courtesy of the coeur d’alene art auction, hayden, idaho.

After a short stint in New York City’s publishing world, he opted for country life and long-distance commissions, and returned to Oglesby with his wife and two children. From 1912, for more than a year, they lived off the land on a remote island on Squirrel Lake in northern Wisconsin, catching bass, northern pike, walleyes, and muskies, gathering wild rice, and shooting blue-winged teal, wood ducks, mallards, and pintails. When his brother and father suddenly died one after the other, he briefly taught at the Art Students’ League of Chicago while looking after his mother. Now, with regular work coming in, including for Peters shotgun shells and the calendar company Thomas D. Murphy of Red Oak, Iowa, he returned to New York.

After a good start, things inexplicably went belly up at the end of World War I, and Stick was darn near broke. One crucial commission later, and his career took off. Between July 1919 and December 1921 alone, 153 “Sticks” were published in national magazines of substance—an illustration a week for 2½ years.

He built a grand home on Deal Lake in Interlaken, New Jersey, kept a primitive fishing camp in the dunes at Barnegat Bay, and was voted his borough’s first mayor. He churned out sportsmen, canoes, and campsites for covers of Outdoor Recreation (later Outdoor Life) and Outdoor America. Frank also captured an audience outside the “sporting set” with illustrations over 10 years for Albert Payson Terhune’s popular dog tales, especially the collie Lad, for the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies’ Home Journal.

The Great Depression changed everything, forcing the Sticks to relocate to the village of Skyco on Roanoke Island in an attempt to save their assets in the Outer Banks. Having already given up painting, he now became one of the area’s first real estate developers. He constructed a substantial oceanfront home in today’s Kill Devil Hills, then immediately borrowed against it to make further land acquisitions. Finally, in 1947, Frank snapped up a 2,600-acre tract just north of Kitty Hawk for $30,000—today, priceless—and named it Southern Shores. Bypassing postwar construction shortages, he used beach sand and mortar to make 42-pound building blocks (a practice later forbidden for fear of dune erosion) for the stylish flat-topped cottages with brightly colored whitewashed exteriors he designed; they went up in only four months at two-thirds the cost of the standard workingman’s home. In this era of seaside McMansions, few of Stick’s original 300 or so structures survive.

For one brief moment, in 1937, Frank tried his hand at sculpture and made three fine plasters. But none were cast in his lifetime, and one disappeared altogether. There was another spark in 1944, while wintering on Estero Island, Florida, when he painted a trio of avid hunting dogs. Titled On Point, it would be his last major sporting oil.

Maybe Stick gave up because he’d become a painter who worked “entirely from technical knowledge” and was no longer an artist who “develops from within.” He kept no records of his oil canvases, and only ever recovered a few originals from the magazine and calendar publishers; today, they are really quite rare. Only one was ever issued as a lithograph, his circa 1918 A Critical Moment, of a hunter on snowshoes, his winter shadow coldly cast on the snow while glassing whitetails in the distance.

In a final unleashing of his talent, Stick turned to his accurate but joyful watercolor fish portraits; he would do 300 in the last 15 years of his life. With their nod to Winslow Homer’s light and brushstroke, his exciting sport fishing scenes are Stick at his best. His sailfish, wahoo, tarpon, swordfish, and blue marlin burst free from the hold of the waves and are framed, just for an instant, by a subtly tinted ocean sky before submitting to the hook. At last, Stick the painter had become an artist . . . an artist with real estate.

We all owe a debt to Frank Stick—who was also a politician—for his pivotal role in establishing the Cape Hatteras National Seashore recreational area, Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kitty Hawk, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, and the Virgin Islands National Park. His watercolors and papers are kept at the Outer Banks History Center in Manteo, North Carolina