He and his brother Jim painted houses as young men. Robert Hautman recalls painting one man’s entire house for a set of golf clubs, then being crestfallen to learn after the fact that the putter was not included.
The brothers, who grew up in St. Louis Park under the tutelage of an artist mother, branched out. They started painting wildlife on driftwood and selling it at art shows. They called their business “Birds on Boards.”
Eventually, Robert and Jim began painting wildlife scenes on canvas. A third brother, Joe, gave up a career in physics to follow his painter brothers.
The Minnesota brothers are now internationally recognized wildlife artists. Their work is sold in galleries around the world. They’ve won 10 of the last 24 annual Federal Duck Stamp contests and inspired the duck stamp subplot in the Coen brothers’ movie “Fargo.” The Coens, childhood friends, featured the Hautmans’ work in the film.
Back at home in Minnesota, the brothers have kept a low profile. Now they’re exhibiting original works together for the first time in nearly two decades at the Minnetonka Center for the Arts in Orono. The free exhibit, curated by architect James Dayton, runs through Oct. 26 and features nearly 60 original works, including large acrylics and oils, duck stamp originals and field sketches. Many pieces are for sale.
“This is a chance to see a very successful family of artists in a midcareer retrospective,” Dayton said. “It’s like getting to see a Picasso show in Paris in the 1920s or Willie Mays play at the Polo Grounds in New York City — artists in their prime on their home turf.”
Robert Hautman and his artist wife, Dodi Logue, live on a farm in Delano that they’ve restored to native prairie. Inspiration surrounds them. Robert’s studio is a remodeled chicken coop, and Logue’s studio is in the nearby granary. Robert’s two brothers have homes in Chaska and Plymouth.
Inspired as a child
As Robert Hautman and his wife watched the 2013 Federal Duck Stamp judging online in late September in his studio, he talked about how his artist career took flight. He’s won the federal contest two times, most recently in 2001.
He doesn’t remember the first time he picked up a paintbrush. That’s because art has been part of his story for as long as he can remember. His mother, Elaine, kept a dresser full of art supplies in their home that Hautman and his six siblings regularly plundered.
Robert Hautman, 54, never went to school for art. He learned from his mother and through experience. “We still get critiques from her. She’s 91. She does not hold back,” he said.
His late father, Tom, didn’t call himself an artist, but he carved and painted exquisite duck decoys. When the brothers ran their Birds on Boards business, their father’s decoys, which they used to decorate their booths, often garnered more ooohs and aaahs than their work.
“People would ask, ‘How much for the decoys?’ We could have sold those 100 times,” Robert Hautman said.
His father passed his deep love of nature down to his sons.
“Our dad collected duck stamps and told us about the contest,” he said.
All three brothers remain avid outdoorsmen. Days before the show began Oct. 3, the trio returned from an annual elk hunting trip to Montana, south of Bozeman. Robert Hautman said he snapped dozens of pictures of trees and wildlife during the 10-day excursion.
“Things are always catching your eye when you’re out in the wild,” he said.
He often visits Montana, the Dakotas and the Southwest for inspiration. “Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a pretty special spot,” he said.
He won his first major award in 1987 when his painting of a pair of buffleheads took first place in the Minnesota Duck Stamp contest. He has won the Minnesota contest four times. His two wins in the Federal Duck Stamp contest were for portraits of a Canada goose and a pintail.
Big paintings, small stamps
Hautman paints with acrylics, employing a photo realism style. That precision is what’s required to win stamp contests. The paintings also have to translate well to stamp size.
Judges “look at them through a reducing glass. If it’s too busy, it doesn’t reproduce well as a stamp,” he said.
He spends anywhere from a few months to two years on a painting. He works from photographs taken while on hikes or trips into the wild. His entry for this year’s federal stamp contest was a painting of a pair of mallards landing on water, inspired by ducks he saw on a Shakopee lake years ago.
“Trying to get a scene of a landing mallard is hard,” he said. “They always look stiff to me.”
While working on a painting, he tacks up 20 to 150 photos. “One will have a foot you like, or another will have a wing you like,” he said.
Expanding the canvas
Robert is inspired by the wild but also finds inspiration close to home. Bird feeders on his farm attract songbirds, and a photo of his house cat, Moby, once helped him capture the lines of a cougar in a painting.
He never paints outside, preferring the comfort and privacy of his studio.
“Morning is the best time for me. I have to have coffee and a banana before I can function,” he said.
Over the years, he has mostly stuck to photo realism because it’s what he knows. He has painted a few abstract works, and recently he’s been experimenting with larger-than-life images.
So far, he’s struggled with birds painted larger than they appear in nature. But rabbits somehow work.
“I am pretty happy with the rabbit,” he said, pointing to a huge rabbit painting propped up in his studio that is now part of the show. “I want to do more big.”
Robert Hautman said that typically he, like many artists, is not keen on doing shows because of the preparation involved. It also keeps him from painting.
To prepare for this show, he dug through canvasses in his studio for months.
“We’ve talked about doing a show for years, but never did it,” he said. “It’s hard to get out and promote yourself and do it. … I think it’s going to be a really fun show.”