Duck Dynasty

Of canvases and Canvasbacks: a look inside the high-stakes, duck-obsessed world of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest.

This is a story about ducks, but just barely.

Mostly it’s a story about representations of ducks, and about representations of representations of ducks. It’s also about representations of the people who make the representations of the representations of ducks, and about how all of these representations twirl together in a sort of baffling postmodern spiral around one seemingly simple concept: Art can help save wildlife.

But let’s back up.

It’s 5 a.m. on a Thursday in mid-April, and I’m lying in a muddy ditch next to a wind-rippled slough in severely rural South Dakota. The sky to the east is frosted with pre-dawn. Canada Geese honk madly in the darkness. I’m covered in ghillie netting—a kind of shaggy camo blanket made from burlap and jute, used by hunters (and, apparently, snipers) to hide in thick foliage. In front of me is another raggedy, man-sized bundle, this one with a telescopic lens poking out, conspicuous even though it’s covered with what looks like a Scarecrow wig from a grade-school production of The Wizard of Oz.

Inside that bundle is Adam Grimm, a two-time winner—first in 1999, then again last year—of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, an annual juried art competition sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Ask at your local post office or sporting goods store for this year’s duck stamp, and you’ll be handed a handsome, 13⁄4-inch-by-11⁄2-inch, self-adhesive rendering of a pair of Canvasbacks in a marsh very much like this one, but bathed in the glow of an impossibly golden sunset. You’ll be charged $15, a fee that by law is funneled into a Migratory Bird Conservation Fund to facilitate the purchase and protection of habitat in the National Wildlife Refuge System. If you’re a hunter, you’ll affix this stamp to your hunting license in order to legally harvest migratory waterfowl. If you’re a birder, you might use it to gain entry into any fee-collecting U.S. national wildlife refuge. And if you’re a collector—say, one of the 350 dues-paying members of the National Duck Stamp Collectors Society—you’ll likely store it in a polypropylene cover sleeve, taking it out to admire from time to time.

Grimm painted those Canvasbacks last summer, using as his model a digital collage of reference photos snapped nearby, here in the heart of the wetland-rich prairie potholes region that’s sometimes referred to as North America’s duck factory. In August he swallowed hard and mailed his matted oil painting to the Federal Duck Stamp Office in Washington, D.C. Then, in September, he traveled to Ohio for the annual contest judging, at which a panel of five jurors chose his painting from among 202 entries in three high-drama, spectator-friendly elimination rounds.

As last year’s winner, Grimm is prohibited from reentering the next three contests, but you can’t have too much “reference,” as duck stamp artists call their field photos. Besides, Grimm is a certified duck maniac—not the kind of guy who sits home during spring migration. Which is why he’s here on a weeklong photo expedition with his friend and fellow artist Tim Taylor, setting decoys before dawn, then hunkering down for several stationary hours among the reeds, shooting as many as 1,500 photos of alighting ducks.

A few feet from the bushy clump that is Adam Grimm, another mass of ghillie netting hides filmmaker Brian Golden Davis, who is rolling footage of Grimm and Taylor’s reference trip for an upcoming documentary called The Million Dollar Duck. The 34-year-old’s previous projects have aired on AMC and PBS, and his team includes an Oscar-winning producer and Oscar-nominated editor. Davis was drawn to what he calls the “completely passionate . . . secret little society” of the duck stamp world after reading journalist Martin Smith’s excellent 2012 book, The Wild Duck Chase. Both the film (which is seeking additional funding and a distributor for release next year) and the book it’s based on explore the insular and mildly eccentric subculture surrounding duck stamps, drawing on artist interviews and ground-level coverage of the drama that surrounds contest judging.

There’s one other ghillie-covered human lurking nearby, and that’s the photographer who’s paired up with me for this story. Which means, if you’re keeping track at home, that he and I are in northern South Dakota to report on a filmmaker who’s shooting a movie inspired by a book about artists who make paintings based on photographs they took of ducks—which, in turn, they hope will become stamps.

With me so far?

Priced at $1 when they debuted in 1934, the earliest duck stamps were designed in-house by the Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1949 the agency turned the stamp’s design into a come-one, come-all competition, and 17 years later made the judging process into a tournament-style public event. Eighty years of duck stamp sales have hauled in more than $800 million ($2 billion adjusted for inflation) and conserved more than 6 million acres of habitat. According to Laurie Shaffer, chief of the Federal Duck Stamp Office, proceeds were about $25 million last year—not bad for a government program with just two other staffers and a 2013 appropriation of less than $560,000.

But none of this is why Davis’s documentary is called The Million Dollar Duck. Although the winning artist receives no prize money, winners do have the right to sell their original paintings, market limited-edition prints, and otherwise license their work. Among wildlife-art aficionados, the pedigree of the Duck Stamp Contest is such that a winner can up and quit his day job to pursue art full time. The contest acquired its “million dollar” nickname in the 1980s, when a booming collectibles market drove demand for wildlife-art prints to dizzying heights. Although things have cooled since the days when a winning duck might literally have raked in a million bucks, Grimm acknowledges having made “several hundred thousand” from prints, licensing, and the sale of his first winning painting back in 1999.

Still, the market for duck stamp prints and paraphernalia tends not to rise and fall on the same tides as the fine arts market, explains onetime contest judge David Wagner, author of American Wildlife Art. Serious stamp collectors notwithstanding, the sort of folks buying Grimm’s prints tend to be motivated less by an appreciation of art for art’s sake and more by a commemorative impulse.

“For the most part, we’re talking about Joe Six-Pack,” says Wagner. “These are not people holding an M.F.A. in art history. Some people who acquire duck stamp prints might be encouraged to buy because of the potential for profit; others just love to hunt, and this is something they can hang in the den next to their 12-gauge.”

Which brings us, inevitably, to the messy intersection of art, imitation, and commerce.

went to Barnes & Noble for a wildlife art magazine,” remembers Tim Taylor. “I saw an article about this million-dollar contest, and I said, ‘Hey, I’ll paint a duck for a million bucks.’ So that’s what I started doing. That was in 1995.”

Taylor and I are strolling the perimeter of a wide, tentacled slough known as the Job Waterfowl Production Area—“purchased with Duck Stamp Dollars,” notes a small sign tucked discreetly among the cattails. Davis the filmmaker is limping along behind us, occasionally shooting B-roll. He spent a full day yesterday with a dead mouse in the bottom of his waders, and today he’s making do with a pair of boots borrowed from Grimm. Taylor often scouts the surrounding area while Grimm settles in for a shoot, and if his footfalls cause the occasional flock to scare up and resettle near Grimm, then so much the better. The surrounding fields are spiky with corn stubble, and the countless seasonal ponds look all the more blue for the totalizing beigeness of the South Dakota landscape in April.

A New Jersey native and resident, and a graduate of New York City’s School of Visual Arts, Taylor didn’t know a Mallard from a merganser when he first picked up that magazine in 1995. Now 52, he’s hardly missed a contest since, and he’s basically taught himself avian biology five ducks at a time, with the release of each new eligible species list for the upcoming contest year. He knows a Canada Goose from a Cackling Goose by the latter’s stubby bill, and he’s learned how speculum coloring marks a purebred Mottled Duck as opposed to a Mallard hybrid. In his day job, Taylor paints window murals and does commercial glass etching, but putting ducks on canvas has become his passion—particularly since meeting Grimm.

In some ways, Taylor and Grimm make an odd couple. Stocky, bald, and brash, Taylor has a Jersey boy’s penchant for calling it like he sees it. One collector I talked to fondly referred to him as “a tank with a fuse on it,” and Taylor regaled me with stories of dressing down contest judges who he thought had made a bad call.

Grimm, on the other hand, exhibits the aw-shucks courtesy of a born Midwesterner. He grew up in suburban Ohio and moved to South Dakota with his wife seven years ago, specifically to live within the Central Flyway. At 35, he’s baby-faced and a bit Opie-ish. Ducks have been his passion since he first paged through Golden’s Birds of North America as a kid (he still carries the same copy). In art school in Columbus, his classmates called him “Duck.” When he met Taylor at a duck stamp workshop in 1999, he was only 20, and when his painting came out on top that year, he became the contest’s youngest-ever winner at 21, at which time he left school to launch his career as a full-time wildlife artist.

Today Taylor and Grimm have the kind of close male friendship that we’ve patronizingly taken to calling a “bromance.” They talk on the phone nearly every day. Grimm calls Taylor his best friend outside his immediate family, and Taylor’s online bio goes so far as to note when the two met, adding that they “have since become best friends.” Grimm’s three kids call Taylor “Uncle Tim,” climbing all over him when he comes to South Dakota to shoot reference with his buddy or paint in Grimm’s cluttered home studio.

Taylor and Grimm also share a somewhat rigid philosophy of art. Within any year’s crop of duck stamp submissions, they both insist, there is one painting that is objectively better than the rest. The judges’ only job is to ferret it out, and it is mind-boggling—particularly to Taylor—that they so often fail in this task. Both artists take a dim view of abstract and non-representational art. Grimm recalls his skepticism when an art professor lectured his college class about the significance of his installation art. (“It was literally a pile of rocks with a chair on top,” he says.) Taylor, an admirer of Norman Rockwell, snorts derisively at modern art darlings like René Magritte, best known for his illustration of a pipe accompanied by the caption, “This is not a pipe.”

Of course, the image on a duck stamp is not a duck. It is a detailed, two-dimensional representation. And Taylor and Grimm, realists to the core, feel that accuracy of representation—the technical proficiency of brushstrokes and coloring, the degree to which true-life detail is captured—is the standard by which artistic talent should be measured. Ironically, though, a duck stamp artist’s craft involves a whole parade of not-a-ducks: The walls of Grimm’s studio are lousy with stuffed and mounted ones. The back of his pickup is covered with wooden decoys. The collage models he creates in Photoshop are imagined, pixel-formed Frankenducks. All of these are tools to help impart the kind of photorealism that wins duck stamp contests. Needless to say, an artist working from a hasty field sketch faces very long odds.

Creating a winning painting is an almost mathematical proposition, Grimm says, “just like 2+2=4.” Both he and Taylor spend at least 150 hours in front of the easel on any given work—not in the throes of creative passion but painstakingly re-creating the precise slope and rusty hue of a drake Canvasback’s head, the light edging on the wing feathers of a Pintail hen, the round-tipped bill of a Gadwall, which is narrower than a Mallard’s. Artists still shake their fists in outrage over 1983’s winning painting, which showed a wigeon missing its primary flight feathers—a telltale sign of a captive bird.

To score with the judges, Grimm and Taylor insist, an artist must make a series of correct deductions. Taylor, for example, always paints what he determines will be the second-most-popular duck on the eligible list, reasoning that the judges will tire of seeing the most-popular species while the third-most will be deemed too obscure. Grimm, meanwhile, skews toward charismatic ducks that he knows will sell prints. If mercenary decision making like this doesn’t seem to leave room for the romantic notion of the muse, then welcome to the duck stamp world.

Let’s say I had a crystal ball, I tell Taylor one morning, and I could say with certainty that you’re never going to win the Federal. Would you keep painting ducks and entering the contest, simply for the love of it?

Taylor doesn’t hesitate. “I wouldn’t believe your crystal ball,” he says.

The duck stamp subculture has its share of feuds, controversies, and personality conflicts. In 1989 the Fish and Wildlife Service launched a Junior Duck Stamp Contest, a sort of Jedi training academy for future duck stamp artists. When Grimm’s daughter Madison, now 7, won it in 2013, some people wondered whether her dad had held the brush (Grimm provided only coaching and a reference photo). Three brothers from Minnesota, the Hautmans, have collectively won the Federal Duck Stamp Contest 10 times, and their multi-decade dominance has for years incited whispered allegations of conspiracy.

Outbreaks of gossip aren’t uncommon on the many Facebook pages and online forums devoted to duck stamp art. “It almost gets cliquey sometimes, like high school,” laughs Rebekah Lowell, one of the surprisingly few female artists in the duck stamp orbit. Lowell’s a two-time winner of the state-level contest in Maine (some 34 states currently release their own versions of wildlife conservation stamps). She says she tries to steer clear of online scuttlebutt about who uses a photo transfer process (not against the rules but frowned upon by some) and who may have painted from a reference photo cribbed from the web (a serious faux pas). Still, Lowell acknowledges, the online sphere has its perks. A late Facebook adopter, she painted in a social vacuum for years before reaching out to Grimm, Taylor, and other artists online. Today she talks to Taylor on the phone a few times a week, her kids are pen pals with the Grimms’, and Grimm shares with her his reference photos—a common arrangement, since not all painters are photographers.

One real-world tension that’s notably not reflected among duck stamp artists is the one between hunters and some non-consumptive wildlife lovers. Grimm and Taylor are an example of the duck stamp’s unifying potential in this regard. Grimm, a passionate sportsman, has been hunting since he was a kid. Although these days he spends more time shooting his Canon than his shotgun, he still hunts every year with his dad, and one of the first things he showed me on his 6.5-acre property was a spot where he shot 34 Snow and Ross’s Geese last year. Taylor, meanwhile, says he can’t imagine shooting an animal, though he has no beef with those who hunt for meat.

“One time,” says Taylor, “Adam was telling me about how he’d seen this perfect pheasant rising up. It was so gorgeous, the sun hitting its neck feathers. It was iridescent, almost sparkling. And then, he says, ‘I shot it.’ ”

“I saw dinner,” Grimm shrugs. “It was rather exciting.”

The idea that a fondness for duck stamps might transcend the hunter/non-hunter divide is exciting to folks like Shaffer of the Federal Duck Stamp Office. On average, the government has sold about 1.5 million stamps per year for the past 10 years, but in the 1970s and 1980s that average was roughly 2 million. A decline in the number of hunters in recent decades—coupled with rising land prices—has duck stamp boosters worried about dwindling dollars for wetland conservation. Through public service announcements and outreach at events like birding festivals, the Duck Stamp Office and its Friends group—an affiliated nonprofit that supports the stamp program and promotes its conservation benefits—hope to bring more birders, hikers, and photographers into the duck stamp nest.

“We need to help educate people that this is not just the responsibility of hunters,” says Shaffer. “A lot of people are happy to buy a duck stamp to support conservation, but there are those who are so offended by the consumptive use, I’ve had them tell me no, never.”

A hunter he may be, but nobody who has spent serious time around Grimm could doubt his love for his quarry. More than once during our reference trip, I hear him quietly exclaim, savant-like and to no one in particular, such things as, “Oh, I hear a Common Goldeneye doing a courtship display!” He lights up while rocking on a squeaky chair at our hunting lodge, asking, “Hey, guys, doesn’t that sound like a Canvasback call?” When I ask to see some of his photos, Grimm retrieves from his truck a full 24-inch iMac desktop computer, which he often takes with him when he goes out to shoot, because he can’t see the level of detail he wants on a laptop.

“This is my passion,” he says, clicking through a few photos. “I love nature. I don’t paint wildlife because I thought I could make money at it. This is my favorite thing in the world.”

But if that passion comes through somehow in your painting, I ask, then isn’t there something more going on here than just 2+2=4? Grimm thinks it over as he opens a jpeg of his winning Canvasbacks on the giant monitor. Well, sure, he concedes. In fact, he says, there’s a lot about a painting like this that isn’t even particularly realistic. There’s the Frankenducking, of course, and the fact that the point of view is an extreme close-up no human will ever get of a wild bird. Then there’s that chorus-of-angels sunlight that’s breaking through the clouds. Plus the depth of field, Taylor chimes in—everything in the painting is perfectly, fraudulently in focus. When you get right down to it, in fact, the image isn’t so much photorealistic as photo-idealistic.

“To tell you the truth,” Grimm says, “I don’t want my painting to look like a photo. I want it to look like something that no photo could ever be.” 

Man, I just love it here,” Grimm sighs on our last day in the field. We’re driving along a tangle of empty back roads, past stark prairies and fallow fields, searching for one last perfect pond to shoot. “My wife thinks I’m nuts most of the time, but I just feel free out here.” In the truck cab, Davis quickly shoulders his camera and points it at the driver’s seat. “Can you repeat that last line for the documentary?” he asks. Grimm does so dutifully.

That evening, around sunset, I’m walking once more with Taylor on the far edge of a marshy pond when he tells me he’s reconsidered my earlier question.

“If your crystal ball said I was never going to win,” he says, choosing his words carefully, “then I still think it would have been worth it, because I’d have gotten some really great friends out of this whole thing.”

A small cluster of American Wigeons rises straight up at the sound of us. Good answer, I tell Taylor, and while you’re still dodging the question about whether or not you’d keep painting ducks, I’m going to give you a pass because I’m a sucker for answers about friendship. We round a small peninsula to see Grimm’s ghillie-suited profile across the water, and the two pals give each other a distant wave.

Like I said, the story is only barely about ducks.