Joe Hautman lives in New Jersey now, but he remains a Minnesotan at heart: shy, outdoorsy, the kind of guy who might stipulate in his will that he be buried in his Sunday suit and hip waders.
Joe likes to hunt ducks. Joe likes to cook and eat ducks. In general, Joe's daffy about ducks. But his life didn't change dramatically until he started painting ducks. In 1991, while he was doing postdoctoral work in physics at the University of Pennsylvania, he entered the fifth duck painting he had ever done in the Federal Duck Stamp Contest—and beat 584 other entrants. His winning acrylic depicted a snow-white-and-black spectacled eider gliding over a dreamy, sunset-lit sea.
"It just opened up a door," Hautman, 39, says of his showing, which prompted him to give up a promising future in science to paint full time. In a way he joined the family business. His two younger brothers, who never left the Minneapolis suburbs, are professional painters. Jim, 32, has won the Federal Duck Stamp Contest twice (the first time, in 1989, he was the youngest person ever to take top honors). Bob, 37, has been a finalist four times. The brothers also have won a total of 16 state duck and pheasant stamp competitions. Jim even has an Australian duck stamp to his credit. "The talent in that family is hard to fathom," says Randy Eggenberger, president of Wild Wings, a Minnesota-based art publisher that sells Hautman prints.
The Hautmans' mere participation is known to discourage some people from entering the federal contest (pay close attention in the current film Fargo and you'll catch a reference to that effect). The winner of the 62-year-old event, now sponsored by the Department of the Interior, has the official thrill of seeing his creation turned into the next edition of the hunting-permit stamp that some 1.5 million sportsmen across the country must buy each year. (The $15 fee goes toward the purchase of wetlands that are crucial to the well-being of ducks and duck hunters.) The unofficial thrill is earning $500,000 and up from subsequent print sales and commissions.
The Federal Duck Stamp Contest has helped create a nature-oriented collectible niche that was once confined to waterfowl art but now also encompasses paintings of mammals and birds. Eggenberger refers to it as "average guy's art," and average guys shell out $10,000 to $30,000 for top-quality originals. They also tend to treat Duck Stamp Contest stars like elite athletes. "What's weird," says Milla Hautman, Joe's wife, "is that people want autographs."
The art cognoscenti certainly don't go gaga over beautifully rendered mallards and mergansers. To them, nature art is to real art what a duck call is to a Stan Getz sax solo. Yet Joe Hautman insists that painting ducks is "way more complicated" than anything he ever did in the physics lab. There's that psychological link between artist and audience to forge; all those elements of color and light to master; and anatomical details to attend to. So how come the Hautmans seemingly took to wildlife painting like, well, ducks to water?
Credit good breeding. Their late father was an avid duck hunter and duck stamp collector. Tom Hautman inducted them into the mystical fraternity of men who enjoy sitting in cramped duck blinds for hours with numb behinds. Joe, Bob and Jim go hunting together every October, trudging off to Manitoba in search of fresh food and inspiration. "That's why most of my paintings are set in the fall," explains Jim.
The Hautmans also keep mounted ducks at home to use as models. Bob has a freezer full of dead fowl waiting to be pressed into service. In Joe's studio are shoeboxes crammed with his wildlife photos. When he was preparing to paint his spectacled eider, Joe also traveled to Ottawa to peek at rare stuffed specimens in a museum.
While Dad indirectly shaped their destiny, Mom had hands-on influence. Elaine Hautman was a commercial artist before she bore seven children. "That put her artwork on hold for about 40 years," says Bob, chuckling. But there were always crayons, paint, paper and words of encouragement around the house.
"They've always painted over each other's shoulders," says Frank Sisser, editor and publisher of U.S.ART magazine and a former Federal Duck Stamp Contest judge. "They don't paint anything without it passing muster with the other brothers." Such teamwork is expected to pay off in three long, lucrative painting careers. It also makes Bob an odds-on favorite to eventually win the contest. Only a question of time. As a matter of fact, notes Eggenberger, Bob came within a hair in 1994, finishing in second place.