Among conservationists and duck hunting enthusiasts, Minnesota’s Hautman brothers — Joe, Robert and Jim — are legendary for painting talents that have won an unprecedented 10 Federal Duck Stamp art contests. To those who wouldn’t know a mallard from a Thanksgiving turkey, that’s like saying they’re the Bob Dylan, Garrison Keillor and Coen brothers of their field: Minnesotans whose outsized accomplishments bring glory to the state.

Beyond the glamour, their skills have hugely benefited the environment by indirectly raising an estimated $250 million for conservation. That’s because money from the sale of Federal Duck Stamps, which are essentially $15 hunting licenses issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is used to preserve wetland habitat for migratory birds and human enjoyment. Stamp sales typically raise about $25 million annually. In 2002 the United Nations also chose the brothers to design stamps commemorating the 30th anniversary of an international agreement protecting endangered animals and plants.

The guys have been chalking up awards since 1989, when Jim first won with a painting of a pair of beautifully lit black-bellied whistling ducks soaring through a cloudy sky. But they’ve never exhibited together until now. Through Oct. 26, more than 100 of their original paintings — of Duck Stamp competition entries, waterfowl portraits, songbirds, big game (wolves, grizzlies, elk, deer, lions) and even a few pets — are on view in a free show at the Minnetonka Center for the Arts in Wayzata.

Crossover talent

The setting in a popular community art school is unexpected given the traditional tension between so-called “fine art,” which rewards innovation, and wildlife painting which prizes conventional poses and photographic realism. Plus, outdoorsmen and hunters are often wary of arty types and vice versa, a situation the Minnetonka Center hopes to ease by inviting both audiences to see the Hautmans’ “astonishing talent,” said director Roxanne Heaton.

“I don’t think that wildlife art gets much credit in the art world,” said James Dayton, an architect, conservationist and hunter who organized the show. He got to know Joe Hautman after attending a federal duck stamp contest judging in Bloomington a few years ago and has since hunted with the brothers at his hunting camp on Lake Christina near Ashby, Minn.

“My intention isn’t to elevate wildlife art to a revered status,” Dayton said, “but I do want to expose outdoor enthusiasts to these highly talented artists and to expose the art world to these hunters. These are guys who occupy a pretty interesting centerground.”

A family affair

The show opens on a family note with a simple, but deeply felt painting by Thomas “Tuck” Hautman, the guys’ father. About 2 feet tall and 30 inches wide, it depicts canvasbacks flying over Leech Lake on a cold autumn day when damp winds rustle dry marsh grasses and bite through the warmest gear. Low waves break under a sullen sky as two wedges of birds wing in the distance and five ducks tack above the blind in which Tuck waited. Though the painting is more than 60 years old and Tuck long dead, that bleak, invigorating moment still breathes in the cracked canvas.

Family legend says Tuck never painted another picture. Perhaps he didn’t need to. The boys took over, though not without preparing for fallback careers. Joe, federal competition winner in 1991, 2002, 2008 and 2012, earned a doctorate in physics from the University of Michigan before turning to art, a background he drew on when planning “Mallards Overhead,” a smart 8-foot-high painting from which two birds appear to be sailing right out over viewers. The effect is the result of calculated distortions of a type that Renaissance and Baroque artists once employed to loft angels and other worthies into the heavens.

Most of the brothers’ paintings conform to wildlife art conventions — details are precise, brushwork invisible, colors accurate. Birds and animals pose in their habitats, often in full or three-quarter profile. Antlers, pelts and feathers are meticulously delineated. Creatures emerge from morning mists or stand out in the crystalline, raking light of late afternoon. The air is hushed and expectant as marksman or photographer takes aim. This is the natural world in its purest, most idealized state.

Distinguishing the work of one brother from another is a trick probably only they can do, but at its best their art is mesmerizing. They’re brilliant with various types of waterfowl — pintail, black scoter, greater scaup and the ever colorful wood duck. In stamp portraits their birds are proud, fit, intelligent and perfectly illuminated. Robert’s 1996 Canada goose, for example, is a marvel of display. Poised upon a spit of cattail marsh, it crooks its neck to peer at the viewer. While its underbelly and tail are slightly shadowed, its wings are flexed so that every feather is detailed. And yet, for all its contrivance, the pose appears utterly you-are-there natural.

Brotherly competition

They do play around with birds and animals. Surely Joe had fun with his 1991 prize-winning “Spectacled Eider.” Obviously the bird’s startling black “goggles” and gaudy green and orange beak are the signature marks to emphasize, and Joe does them proud. Gliding over deep water and distant mountains, the eider is a perfect specimen and yet slightly comical, as if it’s auditioning for a Disney film. Meanwhile, in “Break Time,” Robert enlarged a rabbit to the scale of a German shepherd on a 6-foot-wide canvas. Stretched out on a grassy plot, the bunny is a magnificent creature with tweedy fur, bushy tail and translucent ears — the Platonic ideal of a rabbit writ large. And not to be outdone, Jim adds a single drop of water to the neck of a canvasback floating with two pals in “First Light.” Given the still pond all around, only God — or a playful artist — could fleck that drop onto those otherwise dry and fluffy feathers.

Sketches and work-in-progress photos enrich the show, as do explanations of changes and paint-outs such as the wolf Joe eliminated from “Running the Ridge.” Realism aside, theirs is an undeniably romantic view of nature which at times can be cloying and sentimental — the water gelatinous, sunsets over-egged, fur and feathers fussy, photographic composites contrived. And rainbows should be committed to memory, never to paint.

Still, the Hautmans are Minnesota treasures whose art is well worth a drive to Wayzata before the show closes in two weeks.


Mary Abbe is the Star Tribune visual art critic/art news reporter.