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Arts & Entertainment

New book explores the precarious future of the federal Duck Stamp contest

Image of the 2011 Federal Duck Stamp.
Image of the 2011 Federal Duck Stamp.
U.S. Gov

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Have you been training your whole life to be the best waterfowl artist in the world? Well, there's an art competition just for you

Every fall hundreds of painters across the country compete in the Federal Duck Stamp contest, which gives participants a chance to have their paintings featured on the duck stamp of the year. The stamps are required to validate hunting licenses, and collectors look forward to the unveiling of every year's newest stamp. Fund collected from the stamps then go to nature conservation.

The 78-year-old contest is the federal government's only juried art competition, and though no prize money is awarded, the winning artist retains full rights to their art, and thus can make millions of dollars on licensing rights or selling limited-edition prints.

These days, however, there are fewer stamp collectors and fewer hunters than before, meaning the future of the Duck Stamp contest is not guaranteed.

Veteran journalist and editor Martin J. Smith researched the competition for his new book, "The Wild Duck Chase," and embedded himself alongside the motley crew of artists, stamp collectors and nature conservationists that make the contest an annual event.

Smith joins the show to talk about the history of this tradition, its connection to pop culture and its vulnerable future.

Interview Highlights:

On why he was drawn to this subject:
"It was the characters, I was taking a bike ride with a friend of mine, who was an aerospace engineer, who had begun painting as a hobby … He started telling me about this contest and it struck me as this rabbithole into this world that I'd never heard of. There were scandals and legends, and all in the effort to come up with the design for this federal revenue stamp every year. He said, 'Y know, the Hautman Brothers are the New York Yankees of the Federal Duck Stamp contest., at which point I was completely sold, I knew that I had to get into that world."

On why he was drawn to this subject:
"It's a competition to come up with the design for a revenue stamp, which, since 1934, has been the stamp that all hunters over the age of 16 have to buy to put on their hunting license. The money that's raised from that goes directly to buying habitat or getting easements for getting habitat for water fowl."

On how that revenue has affected conservation efforts:
"Since 1934 when the program began, it has set aside average roughly the size of Massachusetts, in wetlands and so forth, much of which is now part of the National Wildlife Refuge system. It's the envy of the world. But in the center of this amazing conservation effort, which has been called the single greatest conservation effort in human history, is this quirky art contest."

On the kinds of people that compete:
"It's such a bizarre notion, painting water fowl in a competitive nature. And the artists come from all walks of life … my friend is an aerospace engineer, I've met physicists, I've met homemakers, I've met architects, I've met former body builders who all compete in this. They all bring their own insecurities and eccentricities to it."

On the choices artists have to make when choosing their subjects:
"There are 42 eligible species, you've got 5 that year to paint from. From those 5 species do you want a male and a female together, do you want it single? Do you want it swimming, flying, squatting, sitting on a nest? It's like a zen-garden exercise. you have to make all of these choices, and all of these choices and each of these choices is going to have an impact on whether your duck or goose is chosen for the stamp."

On what the judges are looking for:
"They're looking for a few things, one is anatomical accuracy. If its missing primary feathers, or if its eyes are the wrong color, the judges are going to score you down for that. They're also looking for a coherence of the image itself. Does the foliage in the background match the plumage of the duck in that particular season? And they're looking for aesthetic appeal, and … is this going to look good when it's reduced to the size of a very large revenue stamp … they use sort of a reverse magnifying glass during the judging."

On the legendary Hautman brothers:
"During the last two decades these three brothers up in Minnesota, the Hautman Brothers, Jim, Bob and Joe, have won the contest 10 times. That's almost mathematically impossible because when you win it you have to sit out for three years. In many of the years only one of the Hautman brothers was competing, and remember, they're competing against 200 to 250 other wildlife artists who are very, very skilled. Comparing them to the New York Yankees actually diminishes what they've accomplished, because as a win percentage, they have been more dominant than even the Yankees in baseball."

On the Duck Stamp's connection to the Coen Brothers:
"They grew up on the same street in St. Louis Park, Minnesota together, and in fact, when the Coen Brothers were making "Fargo" they needed props for the scene where they showed Norm's studio. So they went over to Bob and Jim Hautman studio and borrowed some of their taxidermic birds and art supplies and propped the scenes."

On the challenges facing the contest:
"If its going to survive, and it is in trouble because there are fewer and fewer hunters, there are fewer and fewer stamp collectors. That means there's less and less revenue to set aside this habitat. In order to get everybody moving in the same direction you have to get birders and hunters together under the same umbrella. These are two groups that are ordinarily sworn enemies … the challenge for the Duck Stamp program is to get these people to recognize that their goal is precisely the same: preserve habitat for waterfowl. If you can get them pulling in the same direction this program has a chance to survive, if they don't it's going to be in trouble."