Four Questions For Martin Smith

The editor-in-chief of Orange Coast tells us about the bizarre world of competitive duck painting and its main players, all of which he explores in The Wild Duck Chase: Inside the Strange and Wonderful World of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest

Photograph by Jason Wallis

How did you first learn about the world of competitive duck painting and duck stamps?
I was riding bikes with a friend who’s in aerospace and is a hobby painter. He decided to enter the contest. It was all new to me. He was talking to me about it and he said ‘You know, the Hautman brothers are the New York Yankees of this.’ It was a deep well of legends, heroes, and scandals. I went down the rabbit hole and never came up — until now. There are high stakes, great characters, drama. 

Could you explain how the competition works?
Every year the federal government requires anyone age 16 or older to have this duck stamp on their license in order to hunt. This program has been around since 1934. You need someone to design the stamp, so they decided to make it a competition rather than a commission. When they made it a competition, it became a whole other thing. Since 1966, when it was opened to the public, it has become like American Idol. People could become very rich and famous overnight. The painting goes on all the licenses for hunters and well over a million of the hunters have the stamp. 

What are the challenges of this particular style of painting?
All of the artists, by nature of what they do are a bit obsessive, perfectionists. This is photo-realistic painting of waterfowl. They love to obsess about the details and obsess over the details of the competition. They want artists painting roughly the same thing, so there are five eligible species. But how do you show it? By itself? With a mate? Swimming? Flying? What aspects of the bird do you want the judges to focus on? Also, when do you enter the contest? It’s a two-day contest. The first entry arrived is the first one judged. There are five different judges every year. They come from the worlds of conservation and art and are very qualified. 

Who are some of the characters you discovered when writing the book?
The Hautmans, three brothers in Minnesota, have won the contest 10 times in the last 23 years. They so dominate this contest, they’re winning percentage is higher than the New York Yankees. Bob Hautman, who lives on a 120-acre farm outside Minneapolis, has won two times. There is no prize money from the competition. But after you win, you retain the rights to the painting, so you can make prints and sell them. He turned his chicken house into a studio then built a driving range just outside. He can go outside and hit golf balls into his pasture. His wife was upset because his model was an actual pheasant that he had to keep frozen. When you opened his Kenmore, you would find a pheasant spread eagled in his freezer. There were 15 dead birds in his freezer. 

There is also this avant garde artist, Rob McBroom, who has no chance of winning. He’s entered the contest the last 10 years. He uses holograms, glitter, feathers: nothing like the other paintings. He is trying to bridge the world of wildlife art and the avant garde art. He makes a statement every year. He works for a punk rock label, but he pays the $125 entry fee every year.