Inside the Outdoors: Maynard Reece was the original duck stamp 'big winner'
Thoughts of our mortality and the preciousness of life are much closer during these days of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is today’s version of the Spanish flu that killed so many at the close of, and shortly after, World War I.
Too many lives are ending prematurely, so it seemed a poetic contrast to learn that—at the time of his death mere weeks ago—wildlife artist Maynard Reece had reached the century mark, one of the most accomplished wildlife artists of these or any times. Reece was born and lived most of his productive 100 years in neighboring Iowa; a lion’s share of it in Des Moines.
When Minnesota hunters and art aficionados talk of fame in the wildlife sector of the art world, they’re likely to think first of the trio of Minnesota brothers—Joe, Jim and Bob Hautman—who together have won 13 federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation stamp contests. Brothers Joe and Jim have each won five of what we loosely call the “duck stamp” competition.
For those who are not waterfowl hunters, in the year following the competition the winning image appears on the postage-sized paper stamp that duck and goose hunters are required to carry on their person when they hunt waterfowl. Since the inception of the stamp in 1934, some $800 million has been raised for wetlands conservation and restoration by stamp sales. Even many who do not hunt also purchase them, because the habitat preserved with stamp proceeds benefits many nongame creatures, as well.
But, with all due respect to the Hautmans—and to the other Minnesota artists who have won the federal duck stamp competition over the last 86 years—it was Maynard Reece who first accomplished the “five-peat,” winning it five times—in 1948, 1951, 1959, 1969 and 1971. That record stood for more than four decades.
Reece’s talent was evident early; at age 12 he won a contest at the Iowa State Fair with a pencil drawing of mallard ducks. Practice and study led first to a career as an illustrator, receiving such kudos as being hired by Life Magazine to produce images of freshwater and saltwater fish for this then-prominent national publication. Sports Illustrated and the Saturday Evening Post were among his other trophy-level clients. Reece clearly had talent that took him beyond the narrow niche of artwork that tends most often to decorate gun rooms and man-caves.
Maynard Reece’s talent eventually made it possible for him to focus his professional skills full-time on Nature subjects, rather than as a general illustrator. He was able to concentrate on original artwork and magazine commissions, and limited edition prints of his work, much of it linked to his success in state and federal stamp competitions. Reece was so prolific that there are collections of his work in a pair of books, entitled The Waterfowl Art of Maynard Reece, and The Upland Bird Art of Maynard Reece. No doubt these will be more highly prized now that Reece has picked up his decoys for the last time, and rowed his duck boat into the sunset.
One of the positive features of Reece’s art—in this writer’s opinion, anyway—is the fact that you can’t look at most of his paintings—which might feature ducks, pheasants, geese or quail and the environments in which they’re found—and say with certainty “that’s by Maynard Reece.” In other words, his painting style didn’t overshadow his subjects. The creatures and the environments in which they were placed were well-executed and “right,” without the stylistic exaggeration or uninspired photo-realism that reveal some artists’ identities.
There are exceptions, of course, some that we’ve come to treasure, in the same way we appreciate the impressionists in the broader world of fine art. Les Kouba is one. His artwork can usually be recognized immediately. He aimed for atmosphere, nostalgia, and for an “I’ve been there” reaction from his art’s viewers. More often than not these objectives took priority over biological accuracy or intricate detail. Despite this very different approach, both Kouba’s artwork and his quirky appearance became iconic to Minnesotans.
Maynard Reece was clearly an artist with a sense of humor, as well as having talent largely undiminished by age. He created a painting with 80 mallards in it for his 80th year, and did the same in the years he attained ages 85 and 90; these paintings have 85 and 90 mallards, respectively. Sadly, there is no painting with 100 mallards in it to mark this, his 100th year and the year of his passing.
There are plans to hold a celebration of Maynard Reece’s life when the COVID-19 pandemic loosens its grip on the country, according to his obituary. As meaningful as such gatherings and the sentiments shared at them can be, it’s hard to imagine a more enduring memorial than the wide-ranging and widely acclaimed wildlife artwork created by this, the original five-peat duck stamp winner.