Twins Enrich Artmaking and Bring Attention to the Federal Duck Stamp Contest by Entering Together

By sharing the behind the scenes of entering the annual contest, Kira Sabin and Kess Fennell hope to inspire the next generation of artists and conservationists.
Two siblings with red hair prepare their art to sell at an outdoor stall
Minnesotan artists Kira Sabin (left) and Kess Fennell have taken to social media to inspire their followers about art and the Federal Duck Stamp Competition. Photo: Courtesy of Kira Sabin

Kira Sabin and Kess Fennell are both artists from Minnesota and, thanks to a viral 2021 Tiktok post by Kira, have recently garnered some new attention for the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, an annual art competition that acts both as a massive conservation fundraiser and as the official way to select the next year’s design for waterfowl hunting permits. Though Kira has submitted entries to the competition before, 2023 was the first year they officially made it a family affair by both submitting some amazing waterfowl paintings. We recently spoke with Kira and Kess about their artistic processes, what it’s like preparing for the duck stamp contest, and more. You can watch our entire interview with both of them here. A curated version of that interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, has been included below.

How did you learn about the Federal Duck Stamp Contest?

Kira: It was immediate for me when I learned about [the Federal Duck Stamp Contest]. I learned about it in 2019 from my grandpa because he used to duck hunt, and I didn't know that the art for it was a competition. Once I learned that, I was obsessed and I entered that year and I’ve entered every year since. Then, last year Kress moved in with me, and I said, you should do it, too—you’re an artist! 

Kess: I was reluctant, but then said, yes, okay, I think I can do this. Then I entered, too. I think moving in with Kira and seeing the whole process really motivated me to do it. The process seemed fun from start to end. What really got me to commit was the Harlequin Duck, because it was one of the eligible species. If I'm going to start on any duck, it'll be these cute little guys.

What inspired you to post about the duck stamp competition on TikTok, Kira? 

Kira: I got on TikTok when everyone else did during Covid, and it was a sad time for everyone. And as an artist, you have to be a self promoter. While there is a wonderful community on the app, I was disappointed that no one, even at my art college, in the art community, really knew about the duck stamp contest. So I thought people like niche things. It's a great program that more people should know about. Might as well share it!

What did the artistic process look like when you were both submitting artwork to the Duck Stamp contest? Was it different from submitting on your own in earlier years, Kira?

Kira: For sure. When I first submitted, I was in college; I had no money. I didn't really know what stakes this competition had. So I was a bit naive entering it, and I just threw something together. As I've evolved, I've gotten a good camera, I've learned where the birds live, I've tracked them down and taken their pictures, and that's like half the fun, honestly, at this point. I do a lot of sketching and planning. I usually do a practice painting. 

Kess: I feel like I was a little bit behind, because I was. I'm excited about next year. I didn't do a practice painting; I did a sketch beforehand. What was really helpful was literally just painting next to each other in the same environment and seeing the progress from Kira’s versus mine and learning slowly by watching [her] paint. Because how [she paints] is not how I typically paint. So I was taken aback at the beginning. She's really good at composition, and the moment she drew her composition, I thought, “Ah, mine is not that good.” I went back and I changed it. We were constantly learning from each other.

Two young siblings with red hair stand outside on a boardwalk smiling and laughing.
Kira (left) and their twin Kess. Photo: Greyley Sabin

What’s your favorite thing about painting waterfowl in particular?

Kira:  We've always loved animals. We've always loved birds. Kess said earlier today, “You like them because they're the one animal you're guaranteed to see.” They’re always around. You'll hear them. You'll see them. Birds are in our life always, and ducks in particular are very accessible. I've always loved ducks—and they're super cute. So to learn that there was a huge, nationwide competition for them was fantastic. 

Kess: I particularly like capturing the individual little details of the feathers; they're beautiful. It’s tedious but I like that repetitive movement of painting them. I think painting the duck stamp for the first time, I was really happy that it pushed me, since painting them in water specifically was a new thing for me. It really forces you to think about how it all works together. I like seeing myself grow through painting these scenes and the ducks together.

What do you hope your audience takes away from your art both in the duck stamp competition and beyond?

Kira: My favorite thing is when people see my work and say, “Oh, that reminds me of…” I was at my aunt’s cabin and we used to watch the geese fly over, and I want them to feel connected to that same image [through my art]. When I started participating in the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, one of my main goals was to raise awareness about the environmental protection aspect and [for people] to get more involved in art or conservation. 

Kess: I would say it’s to get anybody interested in any form of art really, since I do a lot of different kinds of art. I usually do more illustrative work than these more realistic paintings [that I submitted to the duck stamp contest]. I want to be a tattoo artist in the future, so I'm on my path of self learning and just getting to be a part of that community as well. I think anybody can be an artist. You can use all of these tools and artist elements to ultimately tell a story with each style.

Do you both think you'll be submitting again next year? If yes, do you know what birds you’ll be painting?

Kira and Kess: Yes!

Kira: Right at the competition—because we did poorly, which that's going to happen—right after that, Kess said, “Well, I want to do it again. I want to prove that I can do better than that, because I know I can do better than that.” So I was excited. I wasn't sure if she was going to do it again.

Kess: I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought that I would. And we're both competitive. I want to try again. For next year, we're likely going to do different ones again. I think I’ll do the Northern Shoveler.

Kira: I know I want to do the Spectacled Eider—if I can find them. I need to see them, and that's going to be a task!