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One of the most prestigious art collections any art lover can start happens to feature some of the smallest original art pieces. The American Federal Duck Stamp is no ordinary postage stamp - it's not a postage stamp at all! Created in 1934 to preserve American wetlands, the Migratory Bird, Hunting, and Conservation Stamp, colloquially referred to as the duck stamp, is an eco-friendly initiation that is used as a hunting license. Waterfowl hunters must have a valid duck stamp on their person or face hunting fines. The sales of these stamps directly protect American wildlife habitats, as 98 cents on every dollar sold goes to the preservation of wetlands. Since the stamp’s creation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has protected over 6 million acres of wetlands.
But this stamp isn’t only relevant to hunters; since 1949, the new stamp was determined by a yearly public art competition. Emerging artists across America dedicate months to creating realistic art of the selected waterfowl for this prestigious art competition. While the competition has no prize per se, the winner of the contest can license and keep the rights to their design. This opportunity for winners to make millions off of duck stamp sales alone has given the contest the moniker “the million-dollar duck.”
The process of the competition is quite simple. From June to August, emerging artists submit their artworks to the address listed on the contest’s website; while the specific dates change from year to year, this year's artists may begin submitting on June 1 and must have their art postmarked no later than August 15. In September, the judges gather to critique the submissions. After three rounds of judging, the winner is decided. While the last few years had the judging live-streamed online due to Covid restrictions, this year the judging will take place in person on September 15 & 16 at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
Artworks must meet several criteria before getting considered for first place. The most important factor is realism. The point of the competition is not just to create a new stamp, but to highlight America's beautiful and diverse ecology. So, the winning stamp must be an anatomically correct, realistic art piece. Next is practicality; can the artwork be scaled down to the size of a stamp and retain its detail? Can the necessary topography be added without obscuring the artwork? Finally, the judges are looking for original art pieces. New submissions should look different from past stamps. You can find more information on the rules and expectations of the contest on their website.
The contest is open to citizens, nationals, and residents of the United States who are over 18 years old and there’s no limit to the number of times an artist is allowed to compete, however, winners must wait 3 years before they may reapply. The current record for most wins is held by brothers Joseph (Joe) and James (Jim) Hautman, both having the honour of winning six times respectively. The Hautman brothers are quite notorious in the duck stamp world; along with their third brother Robert (Bob), their stamp submissions have collectively garnered 15 wins total. It’s not uncommon for one Hautman to win after another one the year prior. This propensity for winning earned the brothers a Duck Dynasty in the art world long before the A&E tv show aired.
In recent years, duck stamp sales have gone down, putting wetland preservation efforts in jeopardy. Because of this recent decline, many have tried to raise awareness of the contest and its eco-friendly cause. American artist Rob McBroom regularly applies to the duck stamp competition with artworks that don’t fit the criteria of realistic art. While he knows he won’t win, his creative style will bring a broader audience to the competition.
With a similar tactic in mind, comedian and talk show host John Oliver from Last Week Tonight commissioned 5 submissions for the contest in 2021. While the paintings are in a more realistic style than that of McBroom, the compositions are quite humorous, depicting ducks in uncanny situations. While, tragically, none of the artworks have made it past the first round, Oliver auctioned off the paintings and raised over 90,000 dollars for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
An unintentional success was the work of American artist Kira Fennel (she/them), who went viral on TikTok after documenting their artistic process for her duck stamp in 2021. While their first two submissions didn’t make it past the first round of judging, Fennel’s submissions in 2021 and 2022 respectively made it through to the second round of judging. This year, Fennel is hoping their painting’s score will improve compared to last year’s. You can follow Fennel’s journey on their TikTok and hopefully see them accomplish their goal of winning the duck stamp before they turn 25.
Are you excited for this year’s duck stamp contest? Are you thinking of submitting an original artwork? Do you know of other art organizations that support environmental causes? Let us know in the comments below!
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