It's well-established that Minnesota wildlife artists have produced a dynasty in the long-running federal duck stamp competition.
Well, this year's victor is from Montana — by way of Minnesota.
Chuck Black, of Belgrade, Mont., near Bozeman, won the distinguished contest for the 2024-25 stamp with his painting of a northern pintail. Ironically, Black grew up in Stillwater, sketching waterfowl and admiring artists like the Hautman brothers (Jim, Joe and Bob) of Minnesota, whose combined success in the competition is unmatched. They've won 15 times. Joe's painting of three tundra swans won the 2022 contest, his sixth winning entry.
Earlier this week, Black and his wife, Erica, hitched up their camper and headed for Yellowstone to keep to their relaxing routine — watching the natural world transition to fall — coming down from their jubilation last Saturday when he saw his duck painting selected as top in the contest.
"It is surreal," Black said Tuesday.
While winning is profound for artists on the rise like Black, the program has a weightier goal: The sale of the stamp has raised more than $1 billion since the program began in 1934 to preserve millions of acres in the National Wildlife Refuge system, too.
That impact resonates with Black, who left Stillwater after graduating high school to get his undergraduate degree in wildlife biology at the University of North Dakota.
One of his favorite jobs was with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in the Fergus Falls area, where duck stamp dollars were used to restore wetlands on private land. Black and others would survey plowed fields and determine where historical wetlands might have existed, before requesting funds and seeing that water got back on the land.
His early career also bounced among Great Smoky Mountains and Theodore Roosevelt national parks and state wildlife and parks agencies in Colorado and Montana as a wildlife technician. Taking seasonal jobs at times allowed him time in between to hone his art skills.
The breadth of his experiences has been fundamental to his transition to full-time wildlife artist in 2015 — and, now, federal duck stamp winner.
"I spent a lot of years gaining confidence," said Black, adding that winning duck stamp honors in Colorado (2013) and California (2015) were major motivators to put paint to canvas.
Black, who first entered a federal duck stamp contest in 2009, recalled the real pintail that inspired him. He and his wife returned to a tiny wetland more than once to photograph and video the same bird, syncing with its return interactions with a hen. When eligible species for the duck stamp were announced and included northern pintails, Black said, "I knew I had to paint from that experience."
Perhaps, in a deeper way, he painted from other experiences, too. Dennis and Kathy Black of Stillwater made a point of getting outdoors with their boys, Chuck and Tom, be it bird hunting or hauling them into Quetico Provincial Park, Canada's border waters.
"They took it very seriously," their father recalled.
Dennis hinted at some skepticism about art as vocation when, years ago, Chuck said his summer job as a Stillwater kid would amount to selling his works through eBay auctions. Turns out he outperformed friends who snagged more traditional pursuits.
Last Saturday, watching the stamp contest results streamed live, Dennis said his son's success almost seemed fated.
"We were over the moon … it is a prestigious honor for the art industry, and it is going to catapult Charles even higher," Dennis said.
Chuck Black said Joe Hautman reached out with congratulations and offered to connect sometime over their trade and the duck stamp contest that now binds them.
"[The Hautmans] seem like very giving individuals and want to contribute and move this program into the future," he said.
For his part, Black has made a point of returning to the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center in Fergus Falls to instruct young artists. The center regularly has entrants in the Junior Duck Stamp contest, too.
Any fears of him as a struggling artist have dissipated.
"We don't have to worry about him like we used to," Dennis said.