WV’s new elk-themed license plate features Mason artist’s painting

March 25, 2019

Knight is an artist, and the handiwork she wants to see is West Virginia’s newest wildlife-themed license plate.

The plate, which became available Feb. 18, features one of her paintings — a bull elk standing in a Mountain State landscape.

“I know there are some tags out there already,” said Knight, who lives near Letart, in rural Mason County. “I have one myself, but I have yet to see one going down the road on another car.”

Chances are, she won’t have to wait long. Since West Virginia wildlife officials reintroduced elk to the state in 2016, interest in the animals has skyrocketed.

“I think people will want to have West Virginia’s largest big-game species on a license plate,” said Scott Warner, who heads up the Division of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Heritage program. “We have a lot of people who are interested in wildlife, and they’re really excited about the elk restoration effort.”

Since 2001, the state’s best-selling wildlife plate has featured a white-tailed deer buck. Warner believes the elk might enjoy similar popularity.

“It’s something new, it’s unique, and the art on the elk plate is so fantastic it should appeal even to people who don’t have a huge interest in wildlife,” he added.

Having just introduced a plate that featured a bluebird, DNR officials weren’t due to create another one for several years. But shortly after the first elk stocking took place, agency Director Steve McDaniel got the idea to commemorate the state’s latest wildlife success with an elk tag.

Up to then, all of the state’s wildlife plates had featured the art of the late Tom Allen, a former DNR wildlife biologist.

“We still had tons of Tom’s art work, but none of his paintings featured an elk,” Warner said. “So, we decided to reach out to artists who had contributed to our annual wildlife calendar. If they were interested in participating, we asked them to send us samples of their work.”

Quite by coincidence, Knight had already developed a keen interest in the DNR’s elk reintroduction project.

“When I first heard about elk being reintroduced to West Virginia, I got very excited,” she said. “I had seen elk during visits to the Western states, and I really looked forward to seeing them in an Eastern setting.

“When I found out the DNR was going to get their first shipment of elk from the Land Between the Lakes Elk and Bison Prairie in Western Kentucky, my husband and I drove 7 hours and took a bunch of pictures of the elk there. From those pictures, I was able to do a painting of an elk with a background of the same trees you’d see in West Virginia.”

A panel of DNR biologists and Steve Satterfield, a member of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, examined all the artists’ samples to make sure they were biologically accurate, as well as aesthetically pleasing. They chose Knight’s.

As owner of the Wolf Creek Printery, which prints calendars and makes art prints for other Mountain State artists, Knight knew how to paint images that would be reproduced. Still, creating the elk plate turned out to be a bit of a challenge.

The entire scene had to be laid out to fit onto a 6- by 12-inch rectangle, with space set aside for lettering, screw holes and a registration sticker.

“I met with the people at the [Division of Motor Vehicles], and they gave me sample plates so I would know where everything should be,” Knight said. “I got right on it, and I had the painting ready to go in just a couple of months.”

The project required Knight to step outside her comfort zone.

“I usually paint on stretched canvas, which has some texture to it,” she said. “I didn’t want any texture to show on the final painting, so I did the painting on gesso board. “It took some getting used to; the oil paints I use seemed to just be rolling around on the surface. After a couple of days, though, I got the hang of it.”

Knight said her biggest challenge was getting the painting’s proportions just right.

“I wanted the elk to be large enough to be seen at a distance, but not obscured by the license number, the lettering or the screw holes,” she explained. “I ended up doing the painting actual size, 6 by 12 inches. I thought about doing it larger, but I was afraid it would lose detail when it was shrunk down.”

As it turned out, it did lose a little in the printing process, but Knight doesn’t mind.

“Oh, gosh, I was thrilled when I first saw it,” she said. “This whole process has been so exciting for me. It’s a real blessing to know that my art work is going to be seen by thousands and thousands of West Virginians.”

The elk tag now joins the state’s other five wildlife-themed plates - rose-breasted grosbeak, black bear, deer, brook trout and bluebird - as options for nature or wildlife enthusiasts. The DMV’s reservation fee for wildlife plates is $30 a year, with a one-time $10 fee for creation of a new tag. Fifteen dollars of each annual fee goes to the DNR’s Wildlife Heritage Fund.

Warner expects sales of the elk tag to heat up in late June, when most wildlife plates are due to be renewed.