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Duck Dynasty

How three brothers from Minnesota came to rule the obscure and peculiar world of competitive duck painting

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Thomas “Tuck” Hautman, the family patriarch who died in 1995, was too busy helping support the seven Hautman children with the trailer-rental business he eventually created to spend much time at the easel. Joe says he’s aware of only a few paintings by his father. All involved birds of some type, because, as everyone agrees, Tuck Hautman’s true passion was not art, but ducks and duck hunting. Like him, all three of his artist sons became passionate hunters who recall with reverence their father’s collection of duck stamps.

The painting’s prominence in Joe’s home suggests that the brothers’ passion for the medium stems from some patriarchal gene, but that’s misleading. In truth, that passion comes mostly from their mother, Elaine, a lifelong artist who now lives in a residential facility about a mile from Joe. Her extraordinary and eclectic paintings and drawings hang throughout Joe’s house. Her kids grew up painting, potting, and making messes of all kinds amid what middle-child Amy recalls as “a bounty of art supplies ... Art was always important in the Hautman household.” It was during one of their mother’s forays into commercial art that sons Jim and Bob first started painting waterfowl. Elaine had begun painting ducks on driftwood during a visit to her brother’s cabin on Lake Vermilion, and a friend suggested that she sell the paintings at a Christmas boutique.

They sold well, “so I asked the kids if they wanted to paint some,” Elaine says. “Theirs sold, too.”

The money was good, their mother says, but “then they decided to enter the Duck Stamp Contest, and from then on they started painting ducks.” Perhaps it’s not surprising that four of the seven siblings—Joe, Bob, Jim, and sister Amy—now make their living as professional artists.

Success has made each of the three artist brothers financially comfortable—some might say wealthy. Bob, for example, lives on a 120-acre farm outside of Minneapolis, paints in a structure that once was a chicken house, and, to relax, drives golf balls into his pasture from a tee box beside his studio. It’s worth noting that, when a writer came calling in April 2010, he had 15 dead birds (reference!) in his Sears Kenmore freezer.

When it comes to the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, the Hautmans are as analytical as they are artistic. “They approach the duck stamp more like they’re doing art for an ad campaign,” says brother Pete Hautman, an award-winning Minnesota author. “It involves a lot of thinking about the needs and tastes of the judges. They show their duck-stamp paintings to dozens of people. They want to know how the thing hits people emotionally, whether they’re experienced artists or people who know nothing about art. They’ll even do multiple versions—postures, different poses, different weather in the background. It’s a very analytical and scientific approach.”

Jim, the youngest of his siblings, says the contest rules dictate that approach. “There’s a real narrow parameter of what you can do that would have a chance. Within that, there’s an infinite array of things. For instance, it has to be realistic. The bird has to be fairly large in the painting. There has to be nice color. There are a lot of things it just has to be.”

Jim agrees with those who say he and his brothers are particularly good at eliminating potential negatives from their Duck Stamp Contest entries. Waterfowl feet, for example, are notoriously difficult for an artist to get right. Both Jim and Bob chose to paint specklebelly geese in 2010—entries which finished first and second—but not a single foot is visible on any of the three geese they depicted; in both paintings, the geese are standing in reeds that artfully obscure everything below a certain point on their legs. 

In their art, the brothers’ individual personalities manifest themselves in interesting ways, Pete says. “I think other perceptive wildlife artists can ID them from one another, because of their styles. They can look at [their work] and say, ‘That’s Jim. That’s Bob. That’s Joe.’” He says he can see physical differences among the brothers manifested in their paintings as well. “Look at the animals in their paintings sometime and you’ll see the extent to which they’re doing self-portraits each time.”

When a panel of five carefully chosen judges assembles in Utah later this month to anoint the new Federal Duck Stamp Artist, one competitor will feel the insistent pressure of legacy: Bob Hautman. Because of their wins in 2010 and 2011, Jim and Joe Hautman are both sitting this one out. Only Bob is eligible to compete this year.

The two-day contest will unfold, as usual, with the choreographed precision of Kabuki theater. The collected entries will be publicly displayed. Officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will jet in from Washington to oversee the integrity of the contest. Some competing artists will show up to watch and others will follow the judging via webcast. Most will see their hard work and ambitious dreams unceremoniously crushed during the brutal first cull. A few will watch their paintings survive into the second and third rounds, and a few of those will see their work become part of a national tour of the year’s best entries.

Modesty isn’t the only thing preventing Bob Hautman from making any predictions; more than most, the two-time winner knows how unpredictable the contest can be. But he concedes: “I think my odds are better without the bros. I’ve been second place to Jim twice, and I think Joe has won it three times when I was in the contest.”

Not that he’s counting. 

Martin J. Smith is the author of the new book, The Wild Duck Chase: Inside the Strange and Wonderful World of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest. He also edits Orange Coast magazine, in California.

The “Duck Factory”

Excerpt adapted from Martin J. Smith’s new book, The Wild Duck Chase

Minnesota’s central role in the Federal Duck Stamp program and the peculiar subculture it has spawned owes its origins to geographic realities that make the state the capital of North American duck country. To understand why, you need to know a little about duck aerodynamics.

Most species of waterfowl are more comfortable either dabbling along the surface of a pond, marsh, or river, or diving down beneath it, than they are in the air. While some species are strong, swift, and graceful on the wing, many flap manically across the sky during migration, desperately airborne. They’re like preschoolers on a long road trip—constantly looking for places to stop, eat, and rest. Many waterfowl fight a doomed battle to stay aloft, afflicted by what professional pilots describe as an unfortunate “wing load ratio.”

“It’s just the way a duck is built,” explains John Solberg, a now-retired U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service pilot and biologist. “From a pilot’s perspective, there’s a term called ‘wing loading,’ which is the ratio of the weight of the airplane to the surface area of the wing. A heavier airplane with a relatively smaller wing is going to require more power to stay flying.”

Many ducks and geese are cargo-loaded Boeing C-17 Globemaster IIIs borne aloft on stubby Cessna wings. They’re heavy compared to most birds and have small wings, so their engines need to be large and powerful to compensate. “That’s why ducks have plump, pronounced breasts compared to some of the songbirds,” Solberg says. “It takes a lot of muscle to sustain flight. They have to flap a lot to stay in the air.”

But gravity is only part of their problem. Driven by the biological imperatives to eat and breed, ducks and other waterfowl are constantly on the move across the Prairie Pothole Region, which covers 64 million acres from north-central Iowa; through Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Montana; and across the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. That vast region is known unofficially in waterfowl management circles as the “duck factory” of North America.

Minnesota is the factory’s production floor. Receding glaciers left shallow dimples in the landscape which have filled with water, in some cases 70 or 80 such “potholes” per square mile. Each one is an inviting freshwater rest stop and smorgasbord of duck food for tired, hungry birds during their migration to their northern breeding grounds in late March or early April. When the sun shines, the ponds can glimmer like water beading on the hood of a car. During wet years, it’s easy to imagine parts of Minnesota as a vast sea studded with islands rather than a pond-pocked prairie.

Anyone who has ever flown northwest out of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport has had a bird’s-eye view of what, quite simply, is duck paradise.

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