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License plate rip-off: Alaska must right an old wrong, honor grizzly's artist

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published June 18, 2015

The state of Alaska's Division of Motor Vehicles just reintroduced the standing grizzly license plate, modeled after the 1976 bicentennial design. This design proved to be the most popular license plate design in Alaska's history. However, what DMV failed to do in bringing back the design was to right a wrong and recognize the artist, Mr. Douglas Allen. Allen is a nationally recognized wildlife artist whose original pen-and-ink drawing of the bear was used without either his knowledge or his permission, both in 1976 and again this year.

The bicentennial design has always been my most loved Alaska license plate, ever since it was first issued in 1976, because it featured a piece of Allen's artwork that I recognized. He has been my favorite pen-and-ink wildlife artist since 1962, when I first became aware of his incredible talent. He created 74 pen and ink illustrations for the copyrighted book, "Outdoor Life, The Complete Book of Hunting" by Clyde Ormond, published in 1962 by Outdoor Life, Harper & Brothers, New York. On page 111 of that book is the exact illustration used for the standing grizzly license plate design on the bicentennial plate (identified in the book as an Alaska brown bear).

DMV failed to give Allen the recognition he deserved as the artist behind this plate design. A bigger question is: How did DMV obtain the bear artwork in the first place? I often wondered why a nationally revered wildlife artist wasn't being recognized for designing the major focal point of this special edition bicentennial plate. Would DMV have promoted the design had Norman Rockwell been the artist? Something just didn't seem right.

On March 27, 2014, I read in the then-Anchorage Daily News that House Bill 293 was introduced in the Alaska Legislature to bring back the standing grizzly license plate design. Feeling that I may be the only Alaskan who knows about the true history of the bear artwork, and that it could possibly have been used without knowledge or recognition of the artist, I needed to make the folks at the DMV aware, and suggest they correct a 39-year-old wrong.

Months went by before I learned the bill had passed and DMV had made the decision to reintroduce the plate. In late December 2014, I made a phone call to DMV director Amy Erickson. She told me that she was unaware of the background of the bicentennial plate design and the possibility of copyright infringement involving that design.

I mentioned, if my memory served me correctly, the state ran a design contest in 1975 for residents to submit ideas for the bicentennial plate. I also seemed to recall, years later, a gentleman from Anchorage claimed the bicentennial plate design was his. So either that person submitted Allen's artwork as his own, or, the state obtained the copyrighted bear drawing internally without permission from the artist.

Either way, due diligence was not performed. I felt DMV should have taken the opportunity during the design's reintroduction for the 2015 license plate to finally recognize Allen as the true artist of the bear design that Alaskans have wholeheartedly embraced.

I then emailed a photo of Allen's bear featured in the Outdoor Life book to Erickson as proof of my claim. I further suggested a fitting tribute to the artist would be to include his signature at the base of the bear design on the upcoming plate. I offered to loan her my first-edition copy of the book to digitally capture his signature. I felt this would be another tribute on the state's behalf after 39 years of no recognition for Allen.

On Jan. 10, Erickson responded via email and thanked me for all the information I provided. She stated, "You have solved a long-standing mystery for us! Not even the DMV director or Public Safety commission from 1976 could recall where the design originated, nor was the state library able to find any mention of a design contest in the 1970s. We are delighted to know the graphic artist is Douglas Allen."

She then thanked me for the suggestion of adding Allen's signature to his artwork, as it was a very nice idea, but she stated she did not intend to make any adjustment to the plate design. She did however state, "We are very proud that Mr. Allen's design will continue to be the symbol of Alaska's wilderness and will happily inform interested Alaskans about his legendary illustrations in the Complete Book of Hunting."

Sadly, on June 3, when an Alaska Dispatch News article quoted Erickson about the new standing grizzly license plate sales getting off to a roaring start, she made no mention of Douglas Allen being the artist behind the famous bear design. Nor did she mention it in the DMV's press release in May about the reissuance of the standing grizzly license plate. This was contrary to her promise that "interested Alaskans will happily be informed."

In light of this, I felt it was incumbent upon me to inform interested Alaskans of the real history of the standing grizzly bear design as best as I could. Could I fault DMV for not believing me? Perhaps not. Could they have done a better job of researching my story? Absolutely. So, thinking that Douglas Allen may be deceased, I intended to find his heirs and ask them if they knew if Allen had any knowledge his copyrighted artwork had been used on the Alaska bicentennial plate.

On June 10, I was pleasantly surprised to discover, with the help of an art gallery owner, that Douglas Allen was alive and well and that he would gladly speak with me! I had a very pleasant 15-minute phone conversation with him, and he said that he was "very surprised" at what I told him. He had no knowledge that his copyrighted bear artwork had been used on the Alaska bicentennial plate, nor had any permission ever been granted to do so. He thanked me for bringing this to his attention.

I emailed a photo of the bicentennial plate for him to look at. He definitely identified the standing grizzly as his artwork. I promised him I would do everything in my power to see that he receives his long overdue recognition from the state of Alaska. I also sent him one of my personal bicentennial collector plates for his studio. Allen graciously gave me his word that he would not pursue any legal action against the state.

I feel now that I've done my part in identifying the real artist. However, I won't feel truly satisfied until the Alaska DMV does its part in finally, after 39 years, recognizing Douglas Allen as the talented wildlife artist responsible for the dramatic artwork on the 1976 and 2015 Alaska "standing grizzly" license plates.

Allen just celebrated his 80th birthday. An appropriate Alaskan tribute to him for his bear design would be the icing on his birthday cake. Please DMV, don't hesitate to right this wrong.

Greg Bill lives in Palmer. Now retired after 30 years as Iditarod's development director, he is a former commercial artist and big game guide.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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