By Ali Nicole

“It’s the return [of the Ward World Championship Wildfowl Carving Competition and Art Festival] after three years of cancelled or modified programming so we’re really excited about the ‘homecoming’,” said Brittany Andrew, interim executive director of the Ward Museum. The competition was modified into a hybrid online/in-person event during COVID restrictions, so this is the first time since 2019 that the carving community from around the world is coming together again at the Roland E. Powell Convention Center in Ocean City. 

This year’s event, which will celebrate the official 50th anniversary (intended to be celebrated in 2020), will be held April 21-23, with competitor registration on Thursday, April 20. On Friday, April 21, the show will open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Over 15 of the more than 40 competition categories will be judged, in addition to Photo Studio with Alan Wycheck, Kid’s Corner activities and live carving demonstrations. The day will conclude with the Living Legends Awards and Dinner that evening, which requires advanced ticket admission. 

On Saturday, April 22, the competition and show will open at 9 a.m. and run until 5 p.m., and feature judging, activities and live demonstrations similar to Friday, with the addition of multiple awards presentations. In a change from previous in-person championships, “we normally host a series of smaller fundraising raffles but because we didn’t want to put a burden on businesses still hurting from the pandemic and do want to put the main focus on the event, those will not be in place this year,” said Andrews. 

The Champagne Waterfowl Silent Auction will occur in-person at the show. 

On Sunday, April 23, the show’s last day which is from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., the day begins with a special photo session and the remaining awards for People’s Choice will be announced as the day progresses. 

Each day, over 20 vendors are expected, many returning from previous events. 

This year’s event features many changes with the focus being on the art, the creators and the competition. “Originally, this event catered to the competitors and was modified to add more visitor focus. This year, we’re getting back to a nice, clean, concise competition,” Andrew explained.

A change to the artwork allowed to be submitted has also been made. Where typically art must be made within the year since the last competition to be accepted, the time frame has been expanded to the last three years due to the lack of the traditional in-person competition. Andrew and her team are, “hoping to see what people were carving since the pandemic and how their creativity has been flourishing.”

The submitted works of art will be applied to one of more than 40 categories that range from beginner to world class. Categories include the traditional wildfowl and waterfowl options, but other categories such as the open category remain to bring more than art based on birds to the judge’s table. Continuing from last year, the expanded Worlds Top Tier category, single-gunner, added contemporary to the world class level in honor of artist Rich Smoker who received the National Heritage Fellow award. “We are expecting to see a large turnout in the new sixth category,” Andrew shares.

Alongside the exciting return of the Ward World Championship are some major challenges for the museum itself. Following a tragic HVAC failure in the galleries and ongoing pandemic-fueled financial difficulties, plans for a move have been announced, garnering much speculation and uncertainty. These challenges did not hinder, and in many ways emphasized the need for, the championship.

This competition began in 1970, prior to the creation of the museum, and was hosted by the Ward Foundation before there was a physical exhibit. “It’s not just part of our history, but part of our beginning…I felt that it was important to move forward with Worlds to show the community that the Ward Foundation is not over. We are showing that, despite significant challenges, we felt this competition is an important part of who we are and what we do. After years of not having it or modifying it, it didn’t feel right, despite the financial and physical challenges of the museum, to not be supporting this competition…We know how important the show is to the community we serve and we wanted to show them that we believe in this competition and the work that we do,” explained Andrew.

Andrew believes the decision was the right one, describing the excitement and outpour of support from the carving community. She describes the community as being like a family and the competition being somewhat of a reunion for these artists who connect with one another from across the country and the world once a year, right here on the Eastern Shore. Andrew describes the community being as unique as their art form — happy to share their techniques and work, love of nature and a desire to grow the community and craft.

The event goes on, not just with the support of the competitors, but many other key players. The Maryland State Arts Council and Worcester County Arts Council are both partial supporters alongside a multitude of businesses in Ocean City. No less than 150 volunteers from all over the world (with accommodations provided by Ocean City businesses) make the event run. “It could not be done without them,” Andrew said.

Support for the Ward World Championship and the Ward Museum plays a major part in keeping this rich part of the Eastern Shore’s heritage alive. Donations, sponsorships and volunteers are still welcome as the competition approaches. Anyone interested can contact Alexandra Kean, interim deputy director and gift coordinator, at am****@sa*******.edu or 410-742-4988, ext. 105, or can access the “donate” button on the museum’s webpage, wardmuseum.org.