How three brothers from Minnesota came to rule the obscure and peculiar world of competitive duck painting
(page 1 of 2)
The thin, thoughtful man who answers the door wears gray sweats, hiking shoes, and a couple days’ growth of beard. Joe Hautman, of Plymouth, doesn’t look like a theoretical physicist, which he is. He doesn’t look like one of the country’s leading wildlife artists, either, although he’s that, too. Nor does he look like his two brothers, who are also wildlife painters—among the best known in American art today.
But as Hautman narrates a tour of his elegant mid-century-modern house, clues to his family’s story emerge. He passes several framed paintings on the walls, all originals, bearing the signature “Elaine Hautman.” The walls of his light-filled studio are hung with what to some might seem a macabre collection of animal parts: the disembodied but elegantly arrayed tail feathers of a pheasant, and the severed wings of at least half a dozen ducks, one of which is affixed to the wall with a throwing dart. Taxidermied waterfowl line his bookshelves, some nobly standing, others frozen in eternal flight.
“Reference,” he says by way of explanation, and in a weird sort of way, it’s a perfectly eloquent way to start the story of how Joe Hautman and his two brothers have, since 1989, established one of Minnesota’s most peculiar and astounding little dynasties.
Unless you follow the off-the-radar world of competitive duck painting, you were probably unaware that Joe Hautman won the annual Federal Duck Stamp Contest last October. His painting of a single, swimming wood duck earned Hautman his fourth win in the only juried art show run by the U.S. government. His reign will end later this month, when the faithful gather in Ogden, Utah, to crown his successor.
The uninitiated may need context: the Federal Duck Stamp Contest is held each year to choose a design for the Federal Duck Stamp, which is the revenue stamp that all waterfowl hunters in the United States over the age of 16 are required to buy before they can hunt. Minnesota buys more of them than any other state in the country. The revenue from the sale of that stamp—more than $750 million and counting since 1934—is used to conserve waterfowl habitat. Since it began, the Duck Stamp Program has protected an area larger than the state of Massachusetts. Much of the National Wildlife Refuge System was created using duck-stamp money, and the program is widely considered the most successful conservation initiative in history.
The program’s centerpiece, though, is a quirky, archaic annual art contest in which artists compete to have their painting on the stamp. More than honor is at stake. While there’s no prize money (the winner gets a pane of their stamps signed by the Secretary of the Interior), each year’s winning artist retains the rights to his or her painting, and there’s a fortune to be made from print sales and licensing. And so each year, competitors, fans, and collectors disappear down an obscure and uniquely American rabbit hole into a wonderland of talent, ego, art, controversy, big money, and occasional scandal.
The artists work within a rigid framework of contest rules that dictate everything from the year’s eligible species, to the size and type of painting 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 taking off, birds landing, birds alone or in pairs or with hatchlings. Choosing the right combination of those elements, and executing a painting well enough to win, may require hundreds of hours of work.
Joe Hautman’s four wins are remarkable enough. But his younger brother Jim, of Chaska, won the contest the year before with his painting of two specklebelly geese. That was Jim’s fourth win as well. Their brother Bob, of Delano, has won the contest twice, and finished second to Jim in 2010. Between 1989 and 2011, the three brothers won the coveted title “Federal Duck Stamp Artist” an astounding 10 times, and one of them has been among the top three finishers all but a few times in the last 24 years.
Their record is especially impressive because the brothers typically compete for the title against more than 200 other artists, including some of the finest wildlife painters in the country. Their record is statistically improbable because the five contest judges are different every year and have no idea who painted each entry. Plus, rules of the intense, high-stakes competition require winners to sit out the three contests after their win. That means that in at least six of the contests since 1989, two of the three Hautman brothers were ineligible to compete.
Their success has made the Hautmans what one fellow competitor calls “the New York Yankees” of the contest. But the only problem with comparing the brothers to baseball’s most storied franchise is that it actually diminishes what the three sibling wildlife artists have accomplished. “They’ve zeroed in on this thing as the main focus in their lives,” says long-time Hautman friend and wildlife artist Bruce Miller of Mound, whose own victory in the 1992 Federal Duck Stamp Contest launched his art career. “And the three of them, they’re smart guys. Joe used to be a physicist. So they’ve analyzed this thing down to the minutiae, and they have every little thing figured out. That’s what they decided to do.”
If you’re familiar with the Hautman name, it’s likely not from their dominance in the contest. If the name rings a bell, it’s probably from the Coen brothers’ 1996 film Fargo, which features a subplot revolving around Norm Gunderson, the husband of pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson, and his entry in that year’s contest. Norm frets about his chances, and in the movie’s final scene, he quietly announces that his mallard painting has, as expected, finished behind an unnamed Hautman painting of a blue-winged teal.
The Hautman reference is no fluke. Ethan and Joel Coen grew up as childhood friends of the Hautmans in St. Louis Park. Jim and Bob were living together at the time the Coens were making the movie, and the filmmakers raided their studio of old brushes, paint supplies, and mounted birds to prop the walls of the Gunderson home.
Because of their success and that odd footnote in film history, the Hautman name arises quickly and often in any discussion of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, usually in reverent whispers. They’re that good. Individual artists have achieved no-less-laudable records. For example, back in the days before winners were required to take a three-year hiatus after their victory, Iowa’s Maynard Reece won the Federal Duck Stamp Contest a record five times between 1947 and 1970. But no name has dominated the competition like that of the Hautmans. They may be the only wildlife artists besides John James Audubon whose name has crossed over into American popular culture.
If you’re looking for a point of origin to their story, you’ll find a clue hanging above a marble-faced fireplace in the music room of Joe Hautman’s home. An oil-on-canvas painting, probably done in the late 1940s or early 1950s, features five canvasbacks in flight. By today’s hyperrealistic duck-stamp standards, it’s crude and ill-proportioned. But it’s obviously hung in a place of honor. The understated signature in the lower right corner reads simply, “Hautman.”
“My dad painted it,” Joe Hautman says with pride.