Excerpt: The Wild Duck Chase

Excerpt: The Wild Duck Chase

A glimpse inside the odd and inspiring Federal Duck Stamp Contest.

By Martin J. Smith
Published: 09/14/2013

And of course, there are wildlife artists. Perhaps a dozen of the 235 contestants from around the country have come to witness the fate of their entries. Before the August 15 entry deadlines they had been at their easels--some of them for months--painting, in remarkably creative variations, the five duck and goose species declared eligible this year. Many of the artists had been competing against one another for years in the insular and sometimes quirky world of national pro-am duck painting--what one observer called "a strange, strange little backwater of the art industry"--and they're greeting one another with the energetic handshakes and lingering hugs of old friends who share a common passion.

Adam Nisbett, just twenty-three and working on a master's degree in electrical engineering, traveled all the way from his Missouri home to see how his painting of a single brant goose would fare. Robert Steiner, one of only two California artists to have won the prestigious federal contest, came across San Francisco Bay to watch his painting of a ruddy duck compete. Sherrie Russell Meline, the other California winner and one of only two women to have ever held the official title Federal Duck Stamp Artist, drove from Mount Shasta, hoping her Canada goose might prevail. Aerospace engineer Mark Berger, who'd battled intense back pain during the 120 hours he'd spent painting his pair of flying Canada geese, drove up from his home south of Los Angeles. The reigning titleholder, Robert Bealle, flew in from Maryland. He was there for the presentation of his official prize--a framed pane of twenty stamps made from his 2009 winning painting, signed by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar--and to watch the selection of his successor. He had no horse in the 2010 race; contest rules prevent him from competing again for three years after his victory.

There's also a palpable pre-judging buzz about Minnesota's fabled Hautman brothers, whom Berger once described as "the New York Yankees of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest." Like Bealle, three-time winner Joe Hautman is sitting it out; his duck had graced the 2008-2009 stamp, and he's ineligible to compete again until the 2011 contest. But his brothers Jim and Robert have entered paintings this year. Combined, the three brothers (whose family name is pronounced HAWTt-man) had won the title an astounding eight times since 1989, and at least one of them has been among the top three finishers sixteen out of the previous twenty-two years. Would the rock stars of wildlife art actually show?

Adding to the Hautman buzz is the usual pre-contest handicapping, which had been going on for weeks. The paintings are judged anonymously, and officials of the Duck Stamp Program keep the artists' names a secret from the judges and the public until the winner has been chosen. But as it does each year, the program had posted scanned images of each 2010 entry on a program-affiliated website, OutdoorsWeekly.com. As usual, that set off a whirlwind of speculation about the submitted works. Which of the five eligible species predominated this year?  Which paintings look familiar, either as previous entries or as derivative echoes of past entries? Which artists took smart risks? Which took less smart ones? 

There's an unmistakable sense of anticipation in the air, a feeling that something important is about to happen. The artists know all too well the enormity of the stakes, at least in terms of their careers. For wildlife conservation ange, the stakes are even higher.

But this year in particular there's a different, less specific tension in the room. Even as the auditorium doors close and the five judges take their seats beneath the giant screen where their judgments soon will be projected, those most familiar with the Duck Stamp program know that its future is suspended, for the moment, in a precarious balance.

The obscure drama of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest has played out for more than six decades now, ever since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided that its duck stamp painting would no longer be an invitation-only commission offered to chosen wildlife artists. The 1949 contest began the tradition of an annual competition open to anybody with a paintbrush, the entry fee, and a burning ambition to become the Federal Duck Stamp Artist.

By establishing the Duck Stamp Program, its organizers created an approach to conservation that in 2010 was being emulated in thirty-four U.S. states with their own duck stamp or wildlife art programs, as well as around the world. A similar program was launched in 1946 by the Canadian province of British Columbia, and by the late 1990s government duck stamp programs had been launched by countries as diverse as Australia, Russia, the United Kingdom, Iceland, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Mexico, New Zealand, Argentina, Denmark, Israel, Spain, Sweden, Ireland, Croatia, and Italy. The Federal Duck Stamp Contest--the only juried art competition run by the U.S. government--created the improbable enterprise of competitive waterfowl painting, perhaps the narrowest niche in the known art world. 

There's a Zen-garden quality to the whole enterprise, with the artists each year working within a rigid framework of contest rules that dictate everything from the year's eligible species, to the seven-by-ten-inch size and type of surface to the appropriate seasonal foliage and plumage that can appear in the painting. Winning entries have featured standing birds, sitting birds, swimming birds, flying birds, fall plumage, spring plumage, birds alone or in pairs or with hatchlings, birds taking off, birds landing, and once, in the now-legendary 1959-1960 stamp, even a limp mallard in the mouth of a national champion Labrador retriever named King Buck.


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