Alaska News

Artist surprised to learn his bear design is on Alaska license plates

Douglas Allen, the wildlife artist whose drawing of a standing Alaska brown bear is featured on Alaska license plates, has never seen one of the animals in the wild. In fact he's never set foot in Alaska.

"I used to go to the Bronx Zoo and they always had a couple of Alaska brown bears," he said.

Speaking from his home in Centerville, New Jersey, where he lives with his wife Beatrice on a 10-acre farm in a house dating from 1730, Allen said, "We've been all over. Montana, Alberta, B.C. and Africa, but not to Alaska."

Allen only recently became aware that his image of a bear from Clyde Ormond's "Complete Book of Hunting" was used for Alaska license plates -- both the special design that debuted this year and the standard plate that was used in the 1970s.

Nor was he aware of the controversy. The standing bear plate was first produced to commemorate the national bicentennial in 1976 and died before the decade was out.

"Of all the eye-gouging, ear-biting, lowdown free-for-alls we've had over public policy in Alaska, none was nastier than the fight over the bear on the license plate," recalled Anchorage Daily News columnist Mike Doogan in 1993. "(It) made the capital move dispute look like a ballet."

Doogan noted that while some liked the bear, most "people hated that bear. Said it looked more like an enraged ground squirrel than a griz. Like a fat guy in a fur coat. Like a bad taxidermy job. Like a mud stain. Heck, it just looked stupid."


The brown tone of the rendition seemed dull next to Allen's black-and-white original and was compared to worse things than mud. The pose reminded some of a flasher about to expose himself. Doogan called the bear "about as realistic as Godzilla" and described the plate itself as "busier than a WPA mural."

"That was a bad license plate," Doogan remarked. "Finally, in the late 1970s, the state Legislature had to suck it up and send the bear packing."

But about 34 years later, the once derided "flasher grizzly" returned when Rep. Peggy Wilson of Wrangell introduced a bill to make the license plate an option at the request of a Ketchikan constituent, Jerry Cegelske. Cegelske spoke of how people in the Lower 48 asked about it when he drove Outside and called it "free advertising for the state."

The bill passed and the bear plates became available on May 7 of this year. By the end of the month it was a roaring success, with three out of four licensees requesting the design.

One Alaskan happy to see the return was Greg Bill of Palmer, former Iditarod development director, big game guide and an artist himself.

"The bicentennial design has always been my most loved Alaska license plate," he said, in part because he knew the image long before he ever came to Alaska. It was in Clyde Ormond's "The Complete Book of Hunting," which was published by Outdoor Life magazine and featured Allen's illustrations.

"I was a junior in high school in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, when that book came out in 1962," Bill said. "I just loved Douglas' artwork."

But he wondered why there was no acknowledgment of the artist.

When news came out that the plate was to be reissued, "I guess it sort of jogged his memory," said Allen, the artist that drew the bear. "He wasn't sure I was still alive, but he called me. It was the first I'd heard about it. I was totally surprised."

In a column in Alaska Dispatch News, Bill wrote that he had contacted the Division of Motor Vehicles urging them to recognize the man who drew the bear, perhaps by putting his signature on the plate. When that didn't happen, he argued, the state had failed "to right a wrong."

"(The Division of Motor Vehicles) failed to give Allen the recognition he deserved," Bill wrote. "A bigger question is: How did DMV obtain the bear artwork in the first place?"

Bill thought there had been a contest to pick the design in 1975, but DMV Director Amy Erickson told him she could find no records of a contest and that, until Bill contacted the department, no one knew where the bear came from.

In his own letter to the paper, former Department of Revenue Commissioner Sterling Gallagher said that the license plate was designed by a vendor. He thought it was the 3M Company. "We had no idea who designed the bear; we just liked the overall concept," he wrote.

Andy Mills, spokesman for the Department of Administration, which now administers license plates, said, "To the best of our institutional knowledge 3M furnished the image." But he added that neither his department nor the Department of Revenue, which had the responsibility in 1976, has ready access to records, RFPs or purchase orders that might clarify the matter. "That was a long time ago," he said.

Erickson told Bill the state had no plans to alter the new plate to identify the artist.

One state official, however, thinks Allen deserves some sort of recognition. Rep. Shelley Hughes of Wasilla read Bill's commentary and is now preparing a legislative citation to honor his work. In a letter to Allen, she wrote that she would present it in the state House and Senate when the Legislature reconvenes in 2016.

"I know that this letter does not suffice our previous lack of recognition of your artistry," she wrote, "but I must say that your creative work has truly left its mark in Alaska. Alaska owes you a debt of gratitude."


That's good so far as it goes, said Bill. "But I'd like to see the governor himself do something. The administrative branch needs to show some responsibility."

In an interview with his local newspaper, the Hunterdon County Democrat, Allen said some of his friends had raised the possibility of suing the state for appropriating his work. But he didn't want to go in that direction.

"It happens all the time," he told Alaska Dispatch News. He finds his art popping up on gifts, aprons, rugs and even whiskey bottles. "I'll walk into a shop some place and see one of my pieces and say, 'Now, that looks familiar.' "

At 80, he remains active as one of the country's leading wildlife artists, with a show coming up at the Burnt Mills Gallery in Clinton, New Jersey, later this year. He knew one of Alaska's leading artists, Fred Machetanz, whom he met at conventions. (Machetanz said he never saw a bear in the wild either; his famed polar bear paintings were done from field work at zoos.)

He had been doing a lot of illustrations for Outdoor Life magazine when the head of the book division called him in to work on Ormond's book, now considered a classic.

"I know they sold more than a million copies of it," Allen said. "After Isaac Walton's 'The Compleat Angler,' that book's sold more copies than any other outdoor hunting and fishing book in the last 150 years. It was pretty popular. I think it was reprinted 15 or 20 times."

And, yes, Allen would like to visit Alaska. Maybe even see some bears. It's been a longtime dream.

"When I was a kid, I'd go to the American Museum of Natural History in New York and look at the Alaska brown bears on display," he said. "The background of the diorama was painted by Belmore Browne," a mountaineering artist whose work is included in the collection of the Anchorage Museum. "It was just gorgeous!


"I've always wanted to visit Katmai, McKinley, the Kenai, Kodiak, the Aleutians.

"I really hope to get up there one of these days."

Mike Dunham

Mike Dunham has been a reporter and editor at the ADN since 1994, mainly writing about culture, arts and Alaska history. He worked in radio for 20 years before switching to print.