The 2021 Federal Duck Stamp Art Competition was in full swing Saturday on the East Coast when brothers Joe, Bob and Jim Hautman pulled their decoys out of a central Minnesota swamp to wrap up their opening hunt of the season.
They only bagged one wood duck at 9 a.m., but the biggest prize of the day was still pending. As the judges focused on the finalists, Chaska’s Jim and Delano’s Bob were tied for first place. It was a confrontation between Jim’s evocative painting of two redheads swaying in 3-foot waves and Bob’s striking painting of Ross’s geese in flight, preparing to land.
Once back home, they watched a live video feed from the US Fish and Wildlife Service to see Jim declared the winner and six-time champion of the country’s most prestigious wildlife art competition. Bob, with three titles of his own, was second. Joe Hautman, five-time Federal Duck Stamp winner and the oldest of the three, planned to finish in the top six.
“It’s pretty amazing… I can’t believe I’ve been doing this for over 30 years,” Jim Hautman said this week in an interview.
The victory over a field of 137 entries – including a few mock paintings sneaked by Anglo-American comedian John Oliver – sets up another big paycheck for younger brother Hautman. Chaska’s 57-year-old career artist will cash in all year round selling limited edition prints and other reproductions of the winning stamp. Sold for $ 25 each, the stamps also serve as collector’s items and mandatory additions to waterfowl hunting licenses. Each year, sales bring in some $ 40 million for wetland conservation and wildlife management. Jim Hautman is the first artist to win the competition six times. It started in 1934.
“If you win, you become an editor, a promoter, a salesperson and a speaker,” Hautman said. “I’m not good at any of those things.”
Virginia art broker Russ Fink, a biographer of all federal duck stamp winners, said it was no surprise the Hautman brothers grew up to dominate the competition. Not only are they highly skilled painters, but as avid hunters and outdoor enthusiasts, they create realistic and intricate designs that resonate with duck stamp enthusiasts across the country. They know what people want in a duck stamp, he said.
“The Hautmans are just the cream of the crop,” said Fink. “Love to see them win this thing.”
Over the years, the Fish and Wildlife Service has turned to Fink as a consultant for the duck stamp competition and he has seen its fair share of pretentious winners.
“All of a sudden they have a halo and they think they are God’s chosen people,” Fink said. “The Hautmans are the salt of the earth. All together they are the nicest bunch of guys you want to deal with and they are good for the industry.”
Under federal duck stamp rules, winning artists are not eligible to join the competition for the next three years – a reprieve that Jim Hautman said he was happy about. Typically for him, painting an entry for the competition requires a month of day and night painting time. “Completely swallowed up… it’s kind of fun,” he said. “An excuse to blow it all up because you’re working on something big.”
If the effort brings victory, the accomplishment demands a year of attention that includes travel, public appearances, media appeals, and customer appreciation. “I like the 3-year wait because it’s an exhausting year,” Hautman said. When the post-victory dust settles, he’s ready to “relax and paint” at his own pace for two years.
Jim Hautman’s latest duck stamp masterpiece stems from his fondness for redheads. It was one of five species artists could highlight in this year’s competition. The others were King Eider, Blue-winged Teal, White-fronted Goose, and Ross’s Goose.
“The redhead jumped in,” Hautman said. “I just think they’re really cool ducks. That red head is so striking.”
After playing with a drawing of three flying redheads, Hautman chose to feature a hen and a duck riding the top of a wave in greenish, bubbling lake water. Dark clouds pile up on the horizon in the late afternoon as a sharp angle of sunlight reflects off the ducks’ faces. They seem to observe two hunters and a dog, in the distance, returning home in a skiff.
“I’m happy with the way he came out,” he said.
At the height of animal painting sales, a federal duck stamp design regularly earned the winner millions of dollars. Fink said the market in those years – starting in the mid-1970s – was fueled by speculators who bought multiple prints in the hope of reselling them at higher prices, like stocks. The investment matrix collapsed when the market was flooded with print.
Hautman said animal painting is less lucrative these days, but still anchored by a healthy core of dedicated federal duck stamp collectors who traditionally associate a stamp with a limited edition. Currently, winning artists normally produce 10,500 copies for limited edition sales. In recent years, these prints have steadily reached $ 185 each, unframed and unbuffered.
The Hautman family’s involvement in the scene dates back to the very beginning when the late Thomas “Tuck” Hautman began collecting federal stamps on ducks during the program’s first year. Thomas Hautman, lawyer, also dabbled in animal painting. His wife, Elaine, was an artist herself. They also instilled the values of hunting and fishing in their seven children.
Jim said he remembers fall trips to an uncle’s cabin on Lake Vermilion, where he and his siblings started duck hunting at the age of 16, often in ponds of beavers. From the age of 13, they hunted deer in the woods of the region with bows and arrows.
“Our trip in the fall was our highlight of the year,” he said.
The kids grew up in the same St. Louis Park neighborhood that gave birth to Hollywood filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen. In the movie “Fargo”, the husband of Police Chief Marge Gunderson, Norm, is an animal artist who understandably loses a duck stamp contest against the Hautmans.
“Aww, Hon, you’re better than them,” consoles Marge.
Jim Hautman was 25 when he painted his first federal duck stamp in 1989, making him the youngest artist at the time to ever win. His brother Joe, a physicist, followed two years later with the family’s second winning design. In total, Joe, Bob and Jim painted 14 federal duck stamps without showing any sign of abandonment. Starting in 2015 with Joe’s “Flight of Swans,” they swept the contest three consecutive years combined with Jim’s “Geese at Sunset” in 2016 and Bob’s “Mallards” in 2017. It was the first year they were. all three back in challenging it together.
“We have our own little rivalry so it’s fun,” Joe said.
Finishing in second place in the federal competition – like Bob did this year – is the most painful, Jim said. This is because the finalist is not providing any return on business investment while the artist is tortured by the self-assessment.
“The payoff is pretty much like last place… and you start to guess the little things that could have put you on top,” Jim said.
The brothers planned a duck hunting trip later this month to North Dakota, replacing what had become an annual elk hunting trip to Montana. Elk hunting lost its appeal when grizzly bears attacked other hunters in the same area, Jim said.
He said his next painting project was already underway: a ruffed grouse. He plans to bring one this fall – for the table meal as well as for a study of the bird’s feathers.
“The grouse is a complicated bird… it’s a difficult bird to paint,” he said.