Kira Sabin never expected to make their mark on the world by posting a TikTok video about an obscure duck-painting competition. Yet that’s exactly what happened.
On July 19, 2021, Kira posted a 52-second clip that would change their life. The then-22-year-old painter was working on their entry for the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, an annual art competition to select the next year’s design for waterfowl hunting permits. In a moment of pure dorky delight, Kira decided to explain the competition to their few thousand TikTok followers.
The video received 100,000 views that day alone. By the time they woke up the following morning, their follower count had ballooned to 20,000 people. “I was in disbelief,” they recall. “But I had a duck to paint, so I got to work.”
Their explainer would eventually reach 2.6 million views, attracting both local and national news. Today, thousands of people follow the Minnesotan on their quest to design a winning entry for the niche yet prestigious art competition. And this year, Kira is making the contest a family affair.
In May, Kira and their twin sibling Kess Fennell announced that they would both be submitting paintings for consideration in 2023. In doing so, the twins are following in the footsteps of duck stamp royalty. The undisputed champions of the art contest have been the Hautman brothers—a trio of artists, also from Minnesota, who have won 14 contests since 1989.
Now, Kess and Kira are hoping to become their own duck stamp dynasty. And while they’ve yet to come close to winning—Kira made it to the second of three judging rounds for the last two years—working together may help them go the distance.
Art and nature were a part of the siblings’ lives long before they learned about duck stamps. The twins grew up watching wildlife in the woods near their home. These woodland denizens became the stars of their art and helped inspire both twins to chase a creative career at an early age.
“We both always wanted to be artists,” Kira tells me over Zoom one Monday morning in July.
“And our family always encouraged it, so it was never really a question,” Kess pipes in from her side of the couch.
Kira and Kess have tuned in for our call from the home they share in a town south of Saint Paul. It doesn’t take long to notice that the twins have a habit of finishing each other’s thoughts—constantly adding to and amending each other’s sentences. “Our family tells us that we have a kind of twin language, and they can’t always understand us when we talk,” Kira says. “I don’t know. I can’t really hear it.”
The twins’ voices are so alike that the transcription service I’m using for our interview can’t tell the two apart. It’s a testament to the many ways their lives have existed parallel to one another. Kira and Kess had the same friend groups as children. They played the same sports and attended the same art college in Minneapolis. If they could do something together, they would.
Then came graduation. Kira settled in Minnesota and started working as a professional painter. But Kess elected to move away from home to pursue a career as a tattoo artist in Washington State.
The twins first learned about the duck stamp contest in 2019 from their grandfather, Dave. A hunter, he explained that the designs on the duck stamps he purchased—images showing scenes of ducks, geese, or grebes—are decided through a massive art contest, with proceeds from the sales going to wetland restoration.
An opportunity to paint realistic birds in a beautiful landscape while championing conservation? The challenge was irresistible. “I thought it was the perfect competition for me,” Kira recalls.
“You were thrilled,” Kess adds.
Kira entered the contest for the first time in 2019. Their mother had to help pay the $125 plus postage needed to send their painting of a Black-bellied Whistling Duck to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which runs the 74-year-old competition.
That first year, Kira’s work didn’t receive a single “in” vote in the first of the contest’s three rounds of judging. It was a wakeup call, one that inspired them to step up their game the following year. And the year after that, when their Red-breasted Mergansers also failed to garner a single vote. Entries must receive three ins to move to the next round, though individual judges reserve the right to pick a handful of entries to move forward regardless. That’s what happened in 2021, when Kira’s Ross’s Goose received just one go-ahead vote but was picked to move on regardless. In 2022, Kira again made it to the second round—this time receiving four in votes—with a Mottled Duck hen that they nicknamed Bucket.
Kess was excited that her twin had found such inspiration in the duck stamp competition. But she didn’t feel the same urge, given that her work tends to be more stylistic than the realism demanded by the judges. But her curiosity in the contest started to pique when she moved back to Minnesota in March. It was there, while watching Kira prepare to paint this year’s entry in a house shared with their new wife, that Kess felt a renewed drive to create with her twin.
Plus, “I love a challenge,” she says.
Kira and Kess were also drawn to the idea of forming a new sibling squad to go toe-to-toe with the Hautman brothers. Kira has idolized the brothers’ work since first hearing of the contest, even choosing to paint Northern Pintails this year as an homage to Joe Hautman’s 2008 winning work. And while working as a family unit is no guarantee of winning, “it definitely helps,” says Bob Hautman, three-time winner of the duck stamp contest.
Kira and Kess certainly have seen the benefits of teamwork. For one thing, having their twin in the room has allowed Kira to ask for advice while working on Teaspoon and Brown—Kira’s nicknames for this year’s pintails. Kess is also able to lean on her twin while working on her design of a Harlequin Duck.
“It’s been really helpful so far—which makes me want you to keep doing it,” Kira tells Kess.
“I might. I’m enjoying it so far,” Kess replies.
Working with Kira has also ferried more interest to Kess’s TikTok account. “People really like the sibling thing,” she says. “They’re like, oh my god! There’s two of you!”
A Win for Wetlands
Going viral is a strange phenomenon. It’s even weirder when what you’ve gone viral for is a couple of duck paintings. “It’s always a little embarrassing to be like, yeah, I’m on TikTok,” admits Kira. But overall, their internet fame has meant nothing but good things for the artist—helping to secure financial security by drawing attention to their art and by selling t-shirts and prints of their duck stamp designs.
Popularizing the duck stamp contest itself is also a win for the natural world the twins draw inspiration from. The competition is often billed as a massive conservation fundraiser, with 98 percent of all proceeds going to wetland conservation. The attention that Kira draws to this cause has not gone unnoticed. In 2021, much to their delight, Kira received a short email from Bob Hautman congratulating them on spreading the word.
I asked Hautman what inspired him to send that message. He says that after multiple people sent him clips from Kira’s original video, he thought: “That’s good. More people need to know about [the duck stamp competition] because we need to protect our wetlands.”
Bob is the only Hautman entering the 2023 contest. His brothers won the first and second place in 2022, making them ineligible to enter this year. That means Kira and Kess have a little less competition. And on August 15—the day of the deadline—the twins mailed their entries to Iowa, where they will join hundreds of others to be anonymously judged on September 15 and 16.
Neither Kess nor Kira think they’ll be taking the big prize this year. But Kira is feeling good about the progress they’ve made.
“It’s the first time I feel like I’m in the same league” as past winners, Kira said in a recent TikTok. “I can confidently say this is my best work.”
Kira is aiming to have all five judges vote Teaspoon and Brown in for the first round, giving them a unanimous pass to the second round. Kess is aiming a bit lower: to just get one vote in the first round.
“Would you genuinely be happy if you got that?” Kira asks.
“Yeah. I would,” says Kess.
“Well, my goal for you is to get more,” Kira tells her “I want you to get three ins.”