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Duck tales

November 11, 2008

Duck tales - Small


A foray into the competitive world of duck stamp art

By Adam Overland

The Bell Museum's Art of the Wild exhibit, which runs through January 4, features the Federal Duck Stamp Artists of Minnesota—winners of the annual Federal Duck Stamp Contest. The winning artist stands to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars from both stamp and print sales of their work.

Because of this, judges of the contest were once lobbied-harassed, some would say-and so their names are now kept secret until the judging is at hand. In October, the first judging in the Midwest took place—at the Bloomington Art Center in Bloomington, Minnesota. Appropriate, considering that of the 75 stamps created since the contest began in 1934, Minnesota artists have designed 23—more than any other state.

On October 17, Don Luce, curator of exhibits at the Bell, was one of the judges analyzing nearly 300 works from artists around the country. In the audience were many of those whose pieces Luce was examining, along with their families, waterfowl hunters, and lovers of wildlife art.

The artists looked upon Luce with solicitous eyes, for he was one of five men who could grant them a small amount of fame and a substantial amount of money. Over the next two days, Luce judged these paintings according to strict rules of entry and his own knowledge of art and ducks. The winning entry would grace more than 3 million stamps. Welcome to the world of duck art.

The duck stamp is not a postage stamp; at $15, it's a mini work of art that duck hunters affix to hunting licenses in order to legally hunt waterfowl, and that anyone who buys it can use as an annual pass to national wildlife refuges. Collectors and conservationists snap up the prints.

Since the program began, sales of Federal Duck Stamps have generated more than $700 million to help purchase or lease over 5.2 million acres of waterfowl habitat in the United States. It's estimated that one-third of the nation's endangered and threatened species find food or shelter in refuges established using Federal Duck Stamp funds, and these protected wetlands, in turn, help purify water supplies, store flood water, reduce soil erosion and sedimentation, and provide spawning areas for fish.

A taste of notoriety

The average person might not know that there is such a thing as a "Federal Duck Stamp Contest," but it has had its share of publicity. The film "Fargo" included clever dialogue about the Hautmans, three real-life Minnesota brothers, wildlife artists, and perennial winners of the competition. And the duck stamp program got quite a bit of press when it was found that all 3.5 million copies of the 2008-09 stamp had a typo on the backing that gave the number for a phone-sex hotline rather than the number for ordering additional duck stamps.

Call of the duck

An author, artist, and scientific illustrator, Luce studied biology and anthropology at the University of Michigan and holds a degree in zoology. In short, he knows a thing or two about ducks and art.

While speaking with Luce in the lower level of the U's Bell Museum, chirping birds sound off from nests unseen. The recordings almost trick the listener into thinking he or she is a step away from the wild. Above the din, Luce explains the current exhibit, the history of the duck stamp, his involvement with art, and the tale of how he helped put himself through college.

First of all, why does Minnesota generate so many duck stamp artists?

"Hunting has always been really strong in the upper Midwest," says Luce, "but this is also the edge of where ducks breed." Ducks flock to Minnesota for the plentiful spring. "The abnormally long days, with lots of sunlight and an enormous amount of productivity [are what drives them]," says Luce. They catch hatching insects to feed their young. When the ground begins to freeze, the ducks fly south not because of the cold, which Luce says doesn't bother them, but for the food.

Luce likes fish, too. His artwork depicting fish still appears in educational materials found everywhere from colleges to state parks to popular coffee table books on ecology. Many of his drawings date from more than 30 years ago when he was making his was through college in part by creating artwork for professors.

"I put myself through school by drawing fish brains," says Luce. With a microscope, he worked diligently to capture every detail of fish brains, and also fish bones and muscles, turtles and bears, wolves and wax leaves, and many dioramas like those found throughout the Bell.

For him, the ultimate challenge lies in creating an apple. "To make an apple from plaster molds... is almost impossible," he says.

Duck yucks—for a worthy cause

As Luce speaks, a listener gets the idea that he's not certain how interested people are in the subject of ducks. Many, right up to the chief of the Federal Duck Stamp Office, Pat Fisher, share his uncertainty.

Fisher responded to an e-mail asking if the chief of the Federal Duck Stamp Office ever encounters skepticism over the lofty-sounding title. "I do get a lot of blank stares and giggles and also people ask me to repeat myself [when I tell them what I do]," Fisher responds. "Quite a number think this is a joke...the Federal Duck Stamp Program...but I find I can use their incredulity to my advantage. I can explain what this program with a silly sounding name has accomplished for wetland conservation and wildlife (not just ducks), and how it continues to impact their lives, even though they find the name funny."

Luce also keeps a sense of humor about the subject. Asked why these artists spend tens, if not hundreds, of hours with their submissions when a photograph would suffice, he responds with his own experience.

"The process of drawing is incredibly different from taking a photograph, in terms of what you see and observe and how you perceive these relationships between things," says Luce. On this issue of patience and appreciation, a hunter and an artist could agree. In fact, says Luce, many of the artists who enter the contest are themselves hunters.

At the Bell, Luce tries to develop a wider appreciation for natural history and wildlife art. Judging the duck stamp contest has given him a new perspective. There is a dichotomy, Luce says, between those who view wildlife art as a lesser art form and those who care little for art without wildlife in it. "We're doing these shows [at the Bell] to break down these barriers," he explains. "This is good art, and can we bridge the gap."

After two "brutal" days of judging, the contest came to a close and this year it wasn't the Hautmans who won. A painting of a male Long-tailed Duck with a decoy in the background took first prize, and Joshua Spies from Watertown, South Dakota, achieved a certain fame.