Sunday, February 5th, 2023
Sunday, February 5th, 2023

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Wildlife artists seek success in stamp contests

Richfield, Minn. (AP) – Tim Turenne has a theory on why he
mustered only a fifth-place finish in last year’s inaugural
Minnesota Walleye Habitat Stamp contest.

“The quality of my fish was better than anyone by far,” said
Turenne, a veteran wildlife artist who enters up to a dozen
wildlife stamp competitions ever year. “But they all showed the
whole fish. My painting only showed about three-quarters of a fish.
I guess they were looking for the whole fish.”

Divining the judges’ artistic sensibilities is serious business
for regulars on the wildlife stamp competition circuit. Winning the
contests – there are five per year just in Minnesota – can mean
prestige, cash and a big boost in painting sales.

Turenne lives with his male partner of 21 years in a split-level
house across the street from a freeway sound barrier in a
Minneapolis suburb. He’s won six stamp competitions in about four
years by painting a series of fish, ducks and turkey with just the
right combination of visual vigor and lack of pinpoint detail that
looks good when shrunken to postage-stamp size.

But he’s never won the Academy Awards of wildlife stamp art –
the Federal Duck Stamp contest, which just marked its 75th
anniversary. Entries for the 2010 stamp are due Aug. 15, and
Turenne has been hard at work in his basement studio on a painting
of two wood ducks.

“It’s been a long time since the wood duck has won,” he said
hopefully.

The first thing to know about wildlife stamps is that they’re
not postage stamps. Instead, the federal government and states
including Minnesota require hunters and anglers to buy and affix
the stamps to hunting and fishing licenses. Proceeds going to
preserve outdoor habitats.

The stamps have become collectibles. Mint-condition copies of
the first federal duck stamp, sketched in 1934 by J.N. “Ding”
Darling, a Des Moines editorial cartoonist, can fetch $15,000 or
more, said Bob Dumaine, the founder of the National Duck Stamp
Collectors Society.

Many stamps, particularly those that win the federal or the more
prestigious state contests, eventually get reproduced in a size
suitable for framing, and adorn many a basement wall – particularly
in the outdoors-oriented Upper Midwest.

“When we dress up and go down to see the Monet exhibit, we’re in
with a different crowd,” said Dumaine, who lives near Houston,
Texas. “I don’t see guys with hip boots on. Does that have a larger
following than duck stamps? I guess so. Does that make it better? I
guess that’s a matter of taste.”

Whether wildlife stamps belong on museum walls next to the
Hoppers and the Hockneys may be debatable, but there’s no doubt
winning wildlife stamp competitions can launch artists’
careers.

Scot Storm, a former architect in Freeport, Minn., has been
earning a living as a full-time wildlife artist since winning the
Federal Duck Stamp competition in 2004.

“Winning contests is a big part of it,” Storm said.

There’s no shortage of competitions to enter. Minnesota has a
Walleye Habitat Stamp contest, a Trout and Salmon stamp contest, a
Migratory Waterfowl Stamp contest, a Pheasant Habitat Stamp contest
and a Turkey Habitat Stamp contest. Entry deadlines for all but the
turkey stamp contest fall between this Friday and Oct. 23. Artists
who want to make a go of the turkey contest have until next
January.

Minnesota is home to more Federal Duck Stamp competition winners
than any other – 15 painters who have racked up 22 of the 75 wins.
The list includes some of the biggest names in wildlife art,
including Les Kouba, along with Jim, Joe and Robert Hautman, three
brothers who together boast eight federal wins and were
memorialized in the movie “Fargo” when Sheriff Marge Gunderson’s
husband, a wildlife stamp artist, expressed jealousy over their
success.

Minnesota is by no means alone in creating opportunities for
wildlife artists. In all, about half the 50 states have at least
one wildlife stamp competition. But there aren’t as many
competitions as there used to be, not as many artists enter any
more and some aficionados grouse that the wildlife art market has
been flooded with so much sub-par art that the work of the truly
talented is devalued.

“Every time you walk into a rural gas station you see a painting
of a duck on a piece of wood,” Dumaine said.

It’s making it harder for artists like Tim Turenne to make a
living. Despite his growing list of wins, Turenne supplements his
afternoons in the studio with a morning job at a fitness
center.

“My friends will say, paint me something so after you die it’ll
be worth something,” Turenne said. “I say, don’t get too
excited.”

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