The Art of The Sporting Life
Have a blast at Barnley Resort’s SpringBank Sporting Club and Wynfield Plantation in Albany, Ga., the quail hunting capital of the country. While in Albany, we also sat down with renowned wildlife artist David Lanier for a different perspective on sporting lifestyle.
A Gal’s First Fire At World-Class Sporting Clays
written by COLLEEN ANN MCNALLY | photography by BARNSLEY RESORT; WYNFIELD PLANTATION
I was flying down Highway 62, so focused on not missing my turn that I almost missed the indigo hues streaking across the horizon. The flat roads of Albany, Ga., framed by towering pines and rows of green farmland, formed a vignette for a vibrant sunset.
After an approximate three-and-a-half hour drive from Atlanta, I made a left turn at the Wynfield Plantation entrance, passing the 2005 “Orvis Wingshooting Lodge of the Year” sign and was met by an equally satisfying sound of gravel beneath my car’s tires. In the distance, dogs barked eagerly.
For those familiar with our state’s grand reputation for quail, those sights and sounds trigger memories that surpass any specific place — they signify a lifestyle. As for me, having only heard stories of what happens beyond the brambles, shrubs, meadows and woody draws, it signaled the start of an unforgettable and undeniably Georgian experience.
While Wynfield’s 2,000 acres do not constitute the largest plantation in Albany, it is one of only a few that is open to the public and provides the modern conveniences necessary for a quintessential hunt. For beginner and seasoned shooters alike, this list includes veteran guides, hard-charging bird dogs, classic shotguns, fully equipped Jeeps and perhaps most surprisingly, well-appointed cabins that can sleep up to 14 people as well as a handsome lodge that serves gourmet meals.
The morning following my arrival, I enjoyed a peaceful cup of coffee and a plate of eggs Benedict for breakfast in the lodge’s near-empty dining hall – a rare sight during much of the year. Each hunting season, from the beginning of October through the end of March, the cabins and lodge remain steadily busy with those that grew up around this tradition as well as those that are curious enough to enter its world. Just hearing the rave reviews of the chef’s three preparations of quail, one with Tabasco, one with glazed peaches and another wrapped in bacon might do the trick for some. Others come to see the well-trained bird dogs do their thing (Wynfield has close to 80 on property), while others come to rub elbows with the country’s elite business class that arrive at the Southwest Georgia Regional Airport by private planes to participate in the cherished pastime.
Regardless of what pulls you in and when, Wynfield’s sporting clays has its own appeal. Not restricted to a season, the clay target shooting gives loyalists a way to practice their aim year-round – and gives novices a chance to learn the basics, which is how I found myself staring down the barrel of a 20-gauge shotgun.
After a cautiously thorough review of safety procedures and a pair of earplugs, I felt adrenaline, but no fear, as I followed instructions, placing one hand at a time on the gun. The nervous excitement of challenging myself to try something new rivaled the sensation previously felt on a zip-line platform before stepping off, a ski lift above a beginner’s slope, a yoga mat before lifting my lower body into a headstand or a raft ripping across roaring rapids. And just like those adventures, each with its own serious safety precautions, this sport easily appeals to a variety of ages, with participants starting as early as 10 years old.
Actually, a sporting clays course is often compared to golf. Although terms like “clays,” “trap” and “skeet” shooting are seemingly used interchangeably, I was quickly corrected that these are three distinct disciplines. A quick rundown: trap refers to targets launched from a single “house” or machine, generally away from the shooter whereas skeet refers to targets launched from two “houses” in sideways paths that intersect in front of the shooter. No matter where you are in the world, trap and skeet are set up the same way.
Sporting clays involve a more complex course with many launch points. Wynfield’s course isn’t only unique from other plantations, but also can be changed frequently, particularly from competition to competition. At each station, the shooter has a chance to see the clay pigeon’s path of flight before, on his or her call of “Pull!”, taking the allotted number of chances to point and fire.
Before too long, my group was getting the hang of the hand-eye coordination, and so followed the high-fives, tallied counts of consecutive hits and sore shoulders. It wasn’t that I lost that sense of adrenaline, but that it was met with comfort and confidence from our guide, who drove the Jeep, released the clays and stood by our sides to refill each shell, coaching us to keep our chins in the right place, flip the safety lock before anyone went “live.” Not unlike a harness, helmet or life vest in previous outdoor adventures, he offered a sense of security. More than that, he kept us laughing with amusing antics, anecdotes insisting women had a natural knack for the sport and was the first to congratulate us with the small, neon orange Frisbee-like “pigeon” shattered to the ground.
Also similar to golf, this is a sport that can involve competition among friends, but ultimately is a repeated challenge to beat one’s personal best. Between the increasing heat of the midday summer sun in South Georgia and my increasing awareness of my need to tone some upper-arm strength, we called it a win-win when we temporarily traded shotguns for serenity. Next stop was north to Adairsville, where Barnsley Resort’s SpringBank Plantation and the hope of a cooler mountain breeze awaited.
Located one hour north of Atlanta, there are a handful of reasons Barnsley Resort should also be on any local bird hunter’s bucket list. SpringBank Plantation encompasses 1,800 acres that comprise 12 large zones, ranging from rolling hills to flat lands, dense cover grasses to large feed strips filled with sunflowers, corn and pearl top millet to create the ideal, upland quail habitat. There are picture-perfect scenics, cozy cottages recognized as part of Southern Living’s Hotel Collection, fine dining with recognition from Wine Spectator and – perhaps the rarest to come by – dedicated instructors.
An Adairsville local, Manager Lyle McClure knows the land like the back of his hand, as he cares for it as well as the dozens of dogs on property and heads the hunts for dove, quail, pheasant and turkey each season. However, before I could even consider being let loose in the fall, I scheduled further instruction with Director Skip Smith at the Spring- Bank Sporting Club.
Perhaps for him, shooting becomes more like riding a bike. But as I approached a shotgun for the second time in my life, I still felt the healthy dose of apprehension. Smith’s impressive accolades acquired by 30 years of teaching, his certification via the National Sporting Clays Association as a Level III instructor – one of approximately 70 in the country – and calm, steady voice giving direction reassured me that I was up for another challenge.
Originally trained as a mechanical engineer, Smith started his career with the Remington Arms Co., developing firearm designs and traveling as the chief instructor for the company’s shooting school before working with Orvis. The latter brought him to Barnsley in 2006, where he is more than qualified to teach beginner lessons, yet does so with much passion for sharing his knowledge – particularly with women and teens, who comprise the fastest growing category of the sport.
In addition to overseeing other outdoor activities for resort guests, Smith now oversees the country’s only Caesar Guerini Wings & Clay School at SpringBank Sporting Club. With this sponsorship from the leading manufacturer of Italian-made over and under shotguns and Smith’s personal approach, SpringBank has gained a reputation as a world-class shooting experience for newcomers and experts alike. Sessions are available year-round and can be held in half-day (recommended for newcomers), one- or two-day sessions to fit guests’ varying schedules and skill levels; regardless of length, each emphasizes an instinct-driven style and coaches fundamentals in a relaxed setting tailored to match each student’s pace.
With Smith’s coaching, I watched in pleasant surprise as my second and third shots were successful hits. A few tries later, thunder broke out and with safety always forefront, we ended the lesson early. Next time, I’ll be ready to try my hand at their course’s diverse layout of shots – some under a natural forest canopy or covered five-stand overlooking a larger pond, which allows for shooting in hot sun or light rain.
Last but far from least, there’s the backdrop of Barnsley Resort’s romantic history adding to its allure. During a stroll down the tree-lined lanes or a detour through hidden gardens leading to ruins of the original manor, the English-inspired village setting hints at its storybook origins.
Not unlike a color-streaked sunset that stops you in your tracks, a chance to shoot clays channels your focus. For first-timers, it’s a chance to step into a world utterly apart, whether for a single, memorable weekend or a stepping stone to a lifelong hobby. When the rush of adrenaline shifts to a sense of accomplishment, I could also now see the forest beyond the trees of sporting clays’ increasing popularity and its lasting appeal.
Experiencing South Georgia Plantations through the Paintings of David Lanier
written by COLLEEN ANN MCNALLY | photography courtesy of TODD STONE; THOMASVILLE CENTER FOR THE ARTS | ALICIA OSBORNE; paintings courtesy of DAVID LANIER
Not far off the banks of the Flint River, among the tall pines and trees laden with Spanish Moss typical of the region, renowned artist David Lanier can most likely be found at one of three places: painting in his home studio, at the Plantation Gallery he co-owns with his wife Cathy or on a hunt. An Albany, Ga., native, Lanier knows the lay of the local land like many others that grew up with a love for the outdoors, but he sees it in a way that is utterly his own.
When hunting, he is ready to aim not just a shotgun, but also a camera. Other times, he heads out solely for research. His neighbors know this well –plantation managers often invite Lanier to ride along with them on days they’re training dogs.
Considering many plantations are private and exclusive invitations that bring people from all over the world, it’s a unique arrangement for Lanier, but also for his fans and those who may never step foot in Albany. His artwork is the captured beauty of the area’s landscape and its legacy sport.
As a child, Lanier didn’t know any artists. He didn’t know how to paint and didn’t take an art class until high school. He spent his free time outdoors, whether it was hunting, fi shing, camping or playing baseball.
“We didn’t do this a lot but a few times, when we were kids –I was probably 10 or 11 years old and maybe my brother would go with us – we’d pitch a tent on [an aunt’s farm]. We’d try to live off the land over the weekend.”
As he grew up, he wanted to see how far he could go playing baseball, and thanks to a scholarship from Troy University in Alabama, that dream began to take shape, until a shoulder injury during his first year abruptly ended his plans.
“That’s when I went to art school. That was a blessing in disguise,” Lanier said.
He studied at the Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota, Fla., where he met Cathy and after graduation, assumed work commercially.
“I started off as a book and magazine illustrator for about five or six years and wasn’t real happy,” he said. He was always being told what to draw, on a deadline and at the mercy of an art director.
In 1990, Lanier was thrown another curveball, but this time, it would be his home run. He and his wife traveled with friends to Charleston for the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, the largest event of its kind in the country. Lanier was surrounded by hundreds of exhibitors and thousands of attendees celebrating nature and conservation through art.
“I had never heard of it,” he said. “I looked around and within 10 minutes, I told Cathy, ‘I’d much rather be doing this.’” When he returned home Monday, he called all of his clients and quit.
OFF WITH A BANG
Lanier said that he wouldn’t advise young artists to take such a sink-or-swim risk without a back-up plan. Yet, he admitted that with a true Plan B, maybe he wouldn’t have pursued the new venture as hard.
The first wildlife painting he created was for a contest. Lanier was named the runner-up, which encouraged him to do his second — a pair of ducks for the Georgia chapter of Ducks Unlimited (DU), the world’s leading organization for wetlands and waterfowl conservation. They asked to use Lanier’s art for their annual sponsor print, meaning they not only paid him for it, but his work was exposed to more than 200 sponsors statewide and they sent some prints back that he could sell.
His third piece was “Bobwhite Covey” – a homage to his hometown’s most popular bird. “We auctioned it at a Quail Unlimited Celebrity Hunt. They were based out of South Carolina, but held their [event] in Albany, where people from all over the country would come to hunt and it was their biggest fundraiser of the year,” he said. When it sold, he got a split of the profits, several hundred prints and most importantly, they asked to use it as part of their national fundraising efforts.
“It’s gratifying to know that one piece of artwork can do so much for conservation,” he said.
Suddenly, he had inventory to get out to the public, but it took a slow start of partnering with area frame shops and building connections throughout the Southeast before he hired a local saleswoman.
He gave the saleswoman a framed piece to showcase, along with 20 shrink-wrapped prints to sell and a list of 25 names in Albany to get started.
Within the first 10 minutes, she called Lanier. She was at so-and-so’s office and they wanted to buy the framed piece. “Tell him that at the end of the day, he can have it,” Lanier reasoned. Thirty minutes later, she called again – the next guy wanted the framed piece as well. “Tell him we’ll have one by the end of the week.” And so on, the orders came in. Eventually, the Laniers opened their own framing store, Plantation Gallery.
It took three years after the career-altering visit to the Southeastern Wildlife Expo before he was accepted as an exhibitor himself. He has presented there every year since.
A DETAILED PROCESS
What is it about Lanier’s art that has such an instantaneous effect on viewers? In a word, detail. He wants it to have “the ring of truth.” In a sporting scene, he adds a little bit of mud to dogs’ feet. He focuses on getting animals’ muscles just right to reflect one that it has been conditioned. If they have been running through briars, wagging their tails, they may rub a raw spot on the tip; it may bleed. Lanier paints the tiny bit of red – the little things that people who spend as much time in the woods as he does notice.
“I do feel like I’m documenting a way of life,” he said. “Wild quail are disappearing all around the country but Albany and Thomasville, which is right below us, still have really healthy populations of wild birds. Not much has changed in 100 years in the way that they are hunted.”
For making such a spontaneous decision more than 30 years ago, Lanier’s process is rather routine.
He usually starts off with a sketch, about the size of an iPad. Each is quick, as he experiments with color and composition. “Usually there’s maybe four or five sketches before I hit on the right idea,” he said. If he’s posing a dog “model,” he typically takes 200 photographs.
“It’s a challenge to make it lifelike, but the reward of it isn’t so much the paycheck. It’s seeing how happy it makes [people] in the end,” he said. “Dogs just bring us so much joy and those memories are so strong with people that I can’t think of anything better to paint.”
Throughout the years, Lanier received increasingly more calls for commissioned pieces. He was reluctant at first, but has found a business niche.
Wynfield Plantation was one – their custom work is proudly featured in their main lodge as well as on gear in their Pro Shop. Another request came from Doug Ivester, former president of Coca-Cola and his wife Kay, who own nearby Deer Run Plantation. Jobs have taken him around the country, traveling to gather photos and he stays backed up at least a year on orders.
A small piece, he takes a day to complete, a larger piece might take a month or two. After he finishes a commission piece, he likes to block out a week or so to paint inventory for upcoming shows, creating something from his mind and for fun.
That’s what led to “Under Tall Pines,” a recent painting inspired by photos Lanier took on Ted Turner’s Nonami Plantation. The artist’s accord with the plantation manager, even prior to Turner’s purchase of the property, has led not only to dove hunts each year but easy access to find inspiration. Those that will never receive such an invitation can see the beauty of the late-afternoon sunlight flooding through the trees that tower over the two pointers.
“That’s the way you see things when you’re hunting,” Lanier said, adding how this work is an example of how his aesthetic has evolved over time. “The more you’re outdoors, you realize the experience of hunting is watching the dogs work and looking at the beautiful surroundings.”
When the painting was complete, the plantation manager emailed an image of it to Turner, who purchased the original.
THE FOCAL POINT
Despite acquiring a high-profile clientele, Lanier speaks humbly. He redirects credit for success back to his community and especially to his wife.
“Without her help, I’d probably only get about half as much done as I do now,” he said. “She’s run the gallery for 19 years – basically all the correspondence, phone calls, the taxes … She frees me up to where I spend everyday painting or researching.”
They have a 28-year-old daughter, a 24-year-old son and a grandchild. They value being able to steer their business around their kids.
After five o’clock hit, he closed the studio and focused on family time. He coached his son’s baseball team from age 4 through high school, only missing four games.
The missed games were due to travel for work, which the couple enjoys doing even more now that their kids are grown.
In addition to the Southeastern Wildlife Expo, Lanier is involved with Waterfowl Festival – the country’s oldest wildlife art show held in Maryland – and was on the committee that created the acclaimed Plantation Wildlife Arts Festival in Thomasville.
While many others who pass the 30-year benchmark in a career may look toward retirement, Lanier has no such intentions.
“If I live to be 90, I hope I have good eyes and good hands,” he said. “There’s nothing in the world I’d rather be doing right now. Nothing. Most people live for the weekend. I’m one of the few people that can’t wait for Monday to come so I can get back down to the studio.”