Duck Dynasty

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

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.


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.