It was a dying breed that inspired this rising young artist.
The woodland caribou is highly endangered and now only roams the northern reaches of Idaho and Montana. Eagan artist Sky Waters, 11, captured the animal and its perilous plight in his artwork, researching, sketching, painting and weighing every brush stroke over the course of four days.
Sky's dramatic depiction of the caribou with forest fires blazing in the background won the grand prize for the 2012 Endangered Species Day Youth Art Contest. He beat out more than 2,200 young artists, including high school students, who entered the national contest sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Endangered Species Coalition.
Sky, his parents and his sister will travel to Washington, D.C., this month to accept his award. While there, Sky will take a personal art class from the renowned marine artist Wyland, one of the contest's judges. A panel of celebrities, artists and photographers judged the entries on concept, composition, color and expression.
It's the latest in a string of awards and honors for the fifth-grader at Eagan's Thomas Lake Elementary.
Sky placed third nationally in the 2012 International Aviation Art Contest for his painting, "Silent Flight." The picture of a hot air balloon and glider is now in Switzerland, entered in the international round of competition. Adam Young, the musician behind pop band Owl City, posted that painting on his Facebook, writing "I LOVE THIS!"
One of Sky's paintings hangs in Kevin Costner's "Tatanka: Story of the Bison" center in South Dakota. He's also won blue ribbons at the Minnesota State Fair and the Dakota County Fair.
Sky described his creative process on a recent Saturday morning: He sketches in pencil and then paints with water colors, using some acrylics for detail work. He often paints the background with an airbrush -- a technique he learned from his artist father.
He said he selected the woodland caribou because he's visited his aunt and uncle in northern Idaho and he was drawn to images of the animal foraging for food as its habitat burned in the background.
"I don't have to do perfection but I like to get close," explained Sky. He works on a project for days, tinkering with finishing touches right up to a deadline.
He was a little quiet after a Friday sleepover with a friend, but his proud parents were happy to gush about their son's recent successes.
Even when he was just doodling with markers and crayons, Sky's interest and abilities stood out, his parents said. Sky used to challenge his older sister Sierra to drawing duels, and little brother proved to be an impressive competitor.
"They'd have little art contests to see who could draw better. They'd ask me to judge," their father, Dale Waters, said.
The parents never declared a winner, but they recognized their son's natural abilities.
Dale, who graduated from Minneapolis College of Art and Design, said Sky always hounded him to teach him different techniques. Sky caught on quickly and was hungry to learn more.
"He went to kindergarten and his teacher said, 'Wow. Did you know he could do three-point perspective?'" Dale Waters said.
His first big break came during a family road trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota in 2009. Sky, then age 8, was awed by Kevin Costner's interpretative center and the bronze sculptures of a herd of charging bison.
He also saw the center displayed youth art.
"As soon as we got to the car, he said, 'Dad, I know exactly what I want to do,'" Dale said.
Sky sketched out his idea in the car, later finishing a painting of a herd of bison on the Black Hills under a starry sky. They mailed the original artwork back to the Tatanka Center. Sky received a complimentary letter from Costner himself. Sky's framed painting now hangs in the interpretative center.
Sky said he enjoys painting animals and landscapes, but he also likes to paint and draw his favorite sports figures, including LeBron James and Lance Armstrong. Sky is tall and lanky and plays power forward on his travel basketball team. Pictures and drawings of sports figures are pinned above his desk at home.
Now Sky's parents say they look for contests for Sky to enter. The entrepreneurial couple, marketing gurus who created and patented "BreathableBaby" breathable mesh crib liners, have set up a desk for Sky in their home studio.
"We don't want this to be a blip. We want this to propel him into his career," Dale Waters said.
"God gave him a talent. Let's use it," Susan Waters said.
A sheepish Sky rolls his eyes at his parents' praise but later admits, "I like that they're proud of me."
Shannon Prather is a Roseville freelance writer.