Before becoming a promising young artist, Williams was an aspiring athlete. He chose to attend Olympus because he thought he'd have a chance to thrive in the varsity basketball program. Instead, he was among the final string of cuts his junior year, and the energetic teen found himself staring at a blank canvas. Quite literally.
On a whim, Williams took Drawing I and learned that he might be better at the easel than on the hardwood. He impressed teacher Jeremy Petersen so much that Petersen asked Williams to sign up for his advanced placement class.
"He's one of those students that you give an assignment and he just doesn't settle for average performance," Petersen said, adding that although Williams is extraordinarily gifted, it's his dedication that makes him so unique. "Most kids would get frustrated and give up. Zach will never give up. He makes it work."
Williams spends his free periods in Petersen's classroom, refining his newfound skills with a perfectionist's zeal that belies his easygoing outward manner. His mother, Kathy Williams, was stunned that her son an avid snowboarder and surfer who rarely sits still otherwise could have a proclivity for painting.
"I've known my whole life that he can draw well, but he had never done oil painting," she said. "I was amazed watching him. To mix five colors together and get the color he wanted … I'd say 'How do you know how to do that?'"
Williams spent months building his duck stamp submission. He started painting the background layers and ended with minute details, such as the duck's feathers and shadows. And before he even picked up a brush, he labored over which duck to select. He finally saw something familiar in the King Eider.
"He chose that duck because it reminded him of his personality," said Kathy Williams. "He's a bright-colored, center-of-attention kind of kid."
One of the judges, longtime Federal Duck Stamp Contest competitor and wildlife artist Clark Ostergaard, said the finely honed details of Williams' entry made it stand out from the flock. "That's what struck my eye," he said. "The shadows where the wing crosses the white of the body, that was excellent work there."
Williams was recognized for his achievement Saturday at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, where they surprised him with art supplies and a new art desk.
Top Federal Junior Duck Stamp honors went to 17-year-old Peter Coulter, of Washington Mo., who was awarded $5,000 for his acrylic snow geese painting after the previously announced winner, 6-year-old Madison Grimm, of Burbank, S.D., was stripped of first place for copying an image.
As the stamp champ, Coulter will see his geese migrate nationwide sold for $5 each by the U.S. Postal Service, Amplex Corporation and national wildlife refuges, with proceeds benefiting states' environmental and conservation education programs.
Due to federal budget cutbacks, there was some doubt as to whether Utah would continue participating in the duck stamp contest this year, said Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge Visitor Services Manager Kathi Stopher. "People were wondering, 'Is this a program that will be cut?'" Although the intent is to raise money for wildlife causes, Stopher said federal funding is needed to promote the competition.
Petersen said he values the contest because it presents students with an honest look at what being an artist entails.
"To have so many criteria that you have to meet. Some of those kids are used to doing their own thing are really kind of forced to work as a professional would," Petersen said.
A feather planted firmly in his cap, Williams hopes to begin school at the University of Utah this fall, and has no plans to stop painting anytime soon.
"I don't know whether it will be a career or just a hobby of mine, but I do know that I want to keep art in my life."
Federal Junior Duck Stamp Contest
All K-12 students are eligible to enter an artistic rendition of North American waterfowl into the state and federal duck stamp contests. Utah's Best of Show winner will compete against the nation's best for a scholarship; this year, the top prize was $5,000. Find information about the Federal Junior Duck Stamp contest at http://www.fws.gov/juniorduck/ and Utah Junior Duck Stamp contest at http://www.fws.gov/bearriver/.