The following appears in the September issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY CHRIS COCOLES
It’s as big a rite of passage for duck hunters as dusting off decoys, flooding fields and training dogs to retrieve downed birds from the swampy muck each fall and winter.
If you’re 16 and older and want to hunt ducks in the United States, besides your state’s general hunting license, you’re also required to purchase a Federal Duck Stamp (currently priced at $25). Ninety-eight percent of proceeds from sales fund America’s 5.7 million acres of U.S. Fish and Wildlife national refuges (USFWS says $800 billion has been raised over time).
Since 1934, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act – more commonly known as the Duck Stamp Act – a different artist’s rendition of a very specific species appears on the stamp.
Who cares? It’s just a stamp, right? Try telling that to Tim Taylor, Adam Grimm, DeeDee Murry, Rebekah Nastav and Rob McBroom. As the title of a new documentary set to make its television debut on Sept. 14 on Animal Planet explains, being named the artist who creates the annual Federal Duck Stamp design can change lives. Hence, The MillionDollarDuck was born.
The federal government doesn’t award the winner any monetary prize, but the winner holds the licensing to the art image to sell it on everything, as the movie depicts, from bottles of Jim Beam to bowties to limited-edition art prints.
“They can make a million or more dollars from selling their art,” says Bob Lesino, former chief of the Federal Duck Stamp Program, in the film.
And even if it’s more about expressing yourself on canvas, reflecting a love for preserving our wetlands duck habitat or whatever rationale you can come up with, making money for painting a mallard, blue-winged teal, canvasback, gadwall or cinnamon teal can’t hurt the motivation factor.
But this film digs deeper into the souls of those who continue to track down the perfect shot and literally create their own masterpieces.
As its title suggests, the crazies, the oddballs and the dreamers who partake in this competition are chasing the riches that may come with the title of Federal Duck Stamp champ (who wouldn’t?). But you finish watching knowing they also care: about art, about ducks and about wildlife.
“I think that elevates it a little bit about to where it’s not just a desire for money,” the film’s director, Brian Golden Davis, says. “The idea is that it’s bigger than the individual. Saving wetlands and making sure that there’s habitat for ducks for generations to come makes that stamp so special.”
IF GOLDEN DAVIS REMEMBERS anything about his outdoors background, it is that he didn’t share his dad’s love of trout fishing back home in Virginia.
“It was always catch and release; I kind of preferred eating what we catch. My parents have a place on Chesapeake Bay and I was also someone who loved sitting on a dock and fishing,” Golden Davis says in a phone interview discussing his feature directorial debut.
What about duck hunting?
“It’s something I really didn’t know about after not having come into contact with anyone who was a duck hunter.”
Golden Davis, a graduate of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts – a who’s who of filmmakers are among its alums – came across a book written by Martin Smith, The Wild Duck Chase: Inside the Strange and Wonderful World of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest. Smith’s work was the driving force behind The MillionDollarDuck, and like Golden Davis’ movie, chronicles a year leading into the competition.
“When I read that, I was so shocked that it has this amazing history of this contest, the artwork and the conservation with this subculture, that I felt like the outside world didn’t know about it,” says Golden Davis. “For me, it was discovering something cool and hoping others thought it would be interesting to learn about as well.”
The 1996 movie Fargo, which won two Oscars, worked the Federal Duck Stamp Contest into its plot with its dark humor and satire that made the film an instant classic (Fargo even references multiple contest winners Joseph, Robert and James Hautman, who are all featured in The MillionDollarDuck).
Both the film and TV industry have carved out a niche for poking fun at these kinds of events in “mockumentary” form. But Golden Davis saw a compelling aspect in pursuing this project. This is a story of personal triumph, persistence, friendship, passion and even rebellion that at times can be funny, inspirational and a reminder of how critical sales from these stamps can be to maintaining a healthy population of waterfowl throughout the country.
“I had read the book and done some research online, but I really didn’t know how strong the connection to conservation and nature would be. Or was this just a thing where people could advance their (art) career,” says Golden Davis, who knew he found a far-more-interesting-than-it-sounds documentary during his first interview, with 2010 contest champion Robert Bealle.
“Nobody would buy a salamander stamp or a speckled toad stamp, but they’ll buy a duck stamp. And when the (USFWS) take that money and buy all these thousands of acres of wetlands to protect it, all those little creatures come under that umbrella. That’s one thing that I’m so proud that I’m a part of this. It almost makes me emotional,” says Bealle, clearly becoming emotional as his voice cracks.
“I think the connection to the outdoors makes this something special,” Golden Davis says.
The hope is The MillionDollarDuck will introduce a whole new segment of the population to the stamp at a time when sales have sagged as hunter statistics declined, leaving less possible stamp purchases and spawning doubts about the program’s long-term viability.
“If we somehow lost the duck stamp and the revenue associated with the duck stamp,” USFWS Director Dan Ashe warns in the film, “5 million acres of habitat would disappear overnight.”
“I’VE BEEN PAINTING WINDOWS since I was 15. So it’s 36 years now,” says middle-aged Tim Taylor in the film’s opening scene. Taylor brushes a Christmas-themed display at a Sunoco gas station in snow-covered Mine Hill, N.J., where you get the sense the monotony of painting Santa and his elves at donut shops and diners isn’t exactly the end game of the American Dream.
“So, I’m in the art field but I’m not doing what I really want to do. The ideal goal – just like the waiter who wants to be an actor – is to actually paint what you want to paint. I had seen a wildlife art magazine and it had an article in there about this contest where you could win a milliondollars. So I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do. I’m going to enter that. But I didn’t know a thing about ducks.”
These artists are proud of what they do – Taylor says he’s entered since 1995 – what their work stands for, and, for some, what it could be worth. They compare the scope of the contest to global events like the World Cup or the Super Bowl. Adam Grimm, a husband and father of three from South Dakota who has already won the Federal Duck Stamp Contest previously (1999) but continues to enter, likens it to being an American Idol champion (and it’s not that far-fetched as it sounds; Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood were nobodies until we knew them when).
Golden Davis doubles down on how Taylor has changed. He might be the epitome of the spirit of this contest considering how he’s evolved over the years.
“It’s funny that Tim Taylor started doing the contest just because of the money aspect,” Golden Davis says. “But in the end, it was more about ducks, habitat and breeding than he’d ever expected. And that’s what happens. I honestly think you can’t really win the contest unless you have a pretty good knowledge of not just waterfowl anatomy but also waterfowl behavior. And that only comes with years of dedication. There’s not a lot of people who can say, ‘I’m going to enter this thing and I’m going to win it and make a lot of money.’”
KNOWING THAT A LARGE portion of audiences doesn’t hunt, Golden Davis made sure to stick up for the impact the FederalDuck Stamp has because of hunters. Remember that the film industry isn’t exactly known as being sympathetic to outdoor sportsmen and –women or much of anything that involves guns or death of wildlife.
As one person interviewed in the film says, “You can imagine where this conversation goes: ‘You’re collecting money, for what? ‘For wetlands to preserve waterfowl.’ And then some people say, ‘Wait a minute; you’re a hunter. Isn’t that a contradiction?’ And I say, ‘Of course it’s not a contradiction. Hunters care about the land and care about the birds.’”
The artists care too, and Taylor and Grimm became fast friends after years of submitting paintings.
In the film, Taylor visits Grimm’s family in South Dakota and they plan to head out in search of birds to capture on film. (Besides the fact that wild, migrating birds look far more dynamic and healthy than domesticated ducks one might find in a more urban setting, the rules stipulate that paintings of ducks must come from photographs created by the contestants themselves rather than other licensed works.)
“We’re going to look in every puddle, every lake, every pond, until we find them,” Taylor says as he and Grimm travel dirt roads in search of canvasbacks, one of the duck species approved for the particular contest featured in the film.
Grimm, a longtime hunter whose dad introduced him to the outdoors, and Taylor, who has no background shooting ducks, both don camo gear and put out decoys to capture the perfect image from massive camera lenses that they can base their contest entry on.
It’s that kind of obsession that drew Golden Davis to this project. Everyone seems to have his or her reason for coming back year after year, knowing that just one of hundreds of entries gets picked and simple math says you’re more likely to get knocked out in the first round than contend for the No. 1 spot. It’s a can of mixed nuts group.
“Some of the more traditional type of wildlife artist that enters is a duck hunter, has been a duck hunter (his or her) whole life and has a love for waterfowl,” Golden Davis says. “And then there are other people like DeeDee Murry, who’s just an all-around animal lover.”
Murry, a Centralia, Wash. resident, introduces her scene-stealing dog Hallie, a blind dachshund that is something of a painter herself (you have to see it to truly appreciate it, especially since Murry says, “I thought I had a pretty good year last year with my art, but my blind dog sold more art than I did”).
We also get to know three Minnesota-based Hautman brothers, who had combined to capture 10 titles and were described as the New York Yankees of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest because they always seem to win.
And then you have the outcast, Rob McBroom, another Minnesotan who’s never won and enters every year knowing damn well that he will likely never win. And he’s just fine with that. If every film needs a villain, a rebel and the anti-establishment, he’ll gladly accept that baton and run with it.
“My artwork has a lot of glitter and rhinestones and glow-in-the-dark aspects to it – nothing at all like they’re looking for,” McBroom says with a mischievous grin. “It’s not winning; it’s the degree in which I lose. I would say my percentage of winning this year – well, you can’t have less than zero percent, but it’s pretty close to that.”
He proudly displays past entries that, while always depicting the right type of duck, also include rather eclectic background details like the time he included a Morse code translation of dialogue from a porn film. McBroom has become Taylor’s nemesis and trolled him in some of his paintings after Taylor called him out on social media.
“It’s kind of funny because Rob is such a divisive character in that community. You have people who really love him and defended his right to enter the contest,” Golden Davis says. “And you have people who do not think he should have any involvement in the duck stamp contest. So just knowing that I was going to include him, I got a lot of emails.”
And while he sheepishly accepts the lightning rod title, McBroom is first to admit his approach won’t win him anywhere near enough love from the majority of the judges. That said, is his spirit more disingenuous than the next entry?
Of the five judges who got a glimpse of his – let’s call it, complex – paint scheme, one did provide an “in” vote. The rest sent him out of contention.
“But your painting is awesome,” he’s enthusiastically told by an admirer in the gallery of entries.
“A lot of people think that I’m doing this as a joke at peoples’ expense,” McBroom says. “It’s a pretty small group of people that I would have to be making fun of, and it’s a lot of effort in order just to tweak them. So I hope it helps the duck stamp competition, because it’s a good program that is getting less and less revenue coming in.”
Still, there are a lot less people in this genre’s world like McBroom and more like Butler, Mo. resident Rebekah Nastav, now in her mid-20s. When she was 15 in 2006, Nastav won the Junior Duck Stamp Contest and has made it a priority to someday win the big one and bask in the possibilities for those fortunate enough to survive an extremely subjective judging criteria.
“The Junior Duck Stamp Contest changed my life,” Nastav says. “Once I learned about the federal and how much of a bigger deal that is, it’s like this thing you want to spend your life pursuing.”
And that’s one reason why Golden Davis calls his debut as a filmmaker a “very American” production.
“It’s a weird idea and one of those stranger-than-fiction stories that a cartoonist comes up with this idea to have artwork on a stamp that will save wildlife habitat for the birds and other animals,” Golden Davis says. “And then it spirals into this weird American subculture that people dedicate their lives to winning. To me, these were real American characters.”
SO WE KNOW FOR every Rob McBroom, who understands he’s not in it to win it, and for every Tim Taylor, who deep down believes this is going to be his year, there’s a sense of purpose in the journey from blank canvas to individual artistic expression.
“Abstract painting is the realm of the intellectuals,” Taylor says. “Realistic painting, realistic duck stamps, are by people who have invested most of their lives in observing the wildlife, of learning how to become a painter. There’s no shortcut to being good.”
Winning a contest like this also is void of those shortcuts. The movie’s grand finale features the actual two-day judging, which in this instance was at Ohio’s Maumee Bay State Park on Lake Erie. Golden Davis manages to portray the process as taut, tense and nerve-wracking.
A roomful of artists – some who are true conservationists and wildlife lovers, others with $ signs dancing in their heads – await five judges’ decisions on which paintings progress and the others that get eliminated one by one.
“I was a little worried about being able to capture the tension in the room. I had other people describing it to me as watching paint dry, and I was a little nervous,” Golden Davis admits. “I wasn’t sure if we did, but when I first showed the film, people were yelling at the screen when people would get knocked out or move along to another round. You tend to have a fairly passive audience that’s watching documentaries. But when I saw that (yelling), it was a big sigh of relief.”
The survivors move onto the next round with a points system and a minimum total needed to make the final round. For contest lifers like Taylor and the determined Grimm, flanked by his wife and three kids, this is waiting for the envelope reading of the Oscars’ Best Picture, the Heisman Trophy or, as Grimm thinks, the winner of American Idol (cue judge Simon Cowell, the scourge of Idol hopefuls, asking Rob McBroom, “What the bloody hell was that?” when voting on his painting).
In a movie with a fast-paced 71 running minutes, the climax is the winning depiction of the judges’ choice for the perfect Federal Duck Stamp.
“I remember when I was young and just getting into buying the Federal duck stamps and looking at that artwork on there and thinking just how amazing it was that some artist out there painted that,” Grimm says. “Following in that path and being part of that history, that was a goal of my life.”
Isn’t that what an American story is supposed to be? ASJ
Editor’s note: The USFWS website (fws.gov/birds/get-involved/duck-stamp.php) has information on the federal stamp. Animal Planet will broadcast the film on TV for the first time on Wednesday, Sept. 14 at 9 p.m. Pacific (check your local listings). For more on The MillionDollarDuck, go to milliondollarduckfilm.com. Follow director Brian Golden Davis on Twitter @ golden_davis.