On a quiet winter’s day last week in his light-filled west metro studio, David Maass placed a paintbrush in his right hand, prepared yet again to create from pools of color an image unique to his mind’s eye.
Perhaps a mallard, or mallards, would be the centerpiece, or maybe a canvasback or bluebill, wings cupped over decoys.
Born an artist, Maass was attracted to drawing, then painting, as a boy growing up in Rochester. His mother and stepfather were hunters, and Maass was fascinated by the feathering, and the colors, of the game birds they brought home.
“I couldn’t wait for them to return from a hunt so I could see the birds,” Maass said. “I’m a wildlife artist today because I’ve always loved to draw and paint, and because I was raised by people who loved the outdoors.”
Now Maass, for a record fifth time, has been named Ducks Unlimited (DU) International Artist of the Year, a feat that honors his passion for wildlife, wildlife painting and waterfowl conservation.
The award could have been given for longevity alone. Eighty-six years old, Maass was previously honored by DU for artistic excellence in 1974, 1988, 2004 and 2013. He still produces from his Long Lake studio a dozen large paintings a year, mostly commissions and mostly of waterfowl, though pheasants, ruffed grouse, woodcock and their environs also are familiar subjects.
Maass’ pace is admirable. But it pales compared to his peak years in the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s.
“One year I did 73 paintings, and some were big,” Maass said. “I’d start a painting and have it done three or four days later.”
A two-time federal Duck Stamp contest winner and avid waterfowl hunter, Maass, through his artwork, has raised millions of dollars over a half-century for North American wetland conservation.
His first Ducks Unlimited magazine cover painting appeared in 1963, and his most recent was in 2014.
“Late Autumn Greenheads — Mallards” is the painting that earned Maass this year’s top DU artist honor. Framed prints of the painting will be auctioned at DU fundraisers throughout North America, an arrangement that will raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for waterfowl conservation, while also introducing Maass to a still wider audience.
“People sometimes mention how much my association with Ducks Unlimited has helped waterfowl conservation,” he said. “But I also have benefited from the exposure.”
• • •
After high school, Maass worked for Jostens in Owatonna, designing rings and producing other artwork. All the while, on the side, he painted wildlife. This was in the 1950s, long before quality reproduction prints of his work, or others’, were offered.
Some of Maass’ first originals sold for $125.
His break into a wider market came after a Marine Corps stint and while traveling to New York City for Jostens. On one trip, he took a few of his paintings to show to sporting outfitters Abercrombie and Fitch (then an entirely different firm than the one bearing the name today), and Crossroads of Sport.
Both agreed to sell his art.
“That led to my association with DU,” Maass said. “The director of Crossroads of Sport was also in charge of securing artwork for the annual DU banquet in New York City at the Waldorf Astoria. This was a black-tie affair in the 1950s, and I did paintings for them for four or five years.”
Depictions of the natural world, wildlife in particular, are among the oldest art forms worldwide. Cave paintings, for instance, date to prehistoric times, and in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, American Indian animal paintings on rock, or pictographs, are fairly commonplace.
Picasso, Rembrandt, Frederic Remington, John James Audubon, Charles Russell and Andy Warhol are among the many artists who, over time, have painted wildlife or conveyed man’s relationship to wildlife and the natural world.
For waterfowl art particularly, Minnesota during the last half-century has been ground zero.
More state artists have won the federal Duck Stamp contest than those from any other state, a list that includes, in addition to Maass (winning in 1974 and 1982), the famed Hautman brothers — Bob, Jim and Joe (11-time winners in aggregate) — Roger Preuss (1949) and Les Kouba (1958, 1967), among others.
Yet wildlife art didn’t become the mass-marketed medium it is today until the late Bill Webster of Frontenac, Minn., founded Wild Wings in Lake City.
“Bill became one of my best friends,” Maass said. “He published his first print, I think, in 1972, and he published the first prints of one of my paintings in 1973. The painting was ‘Backwater Hideaway,’ and it depicted mallards on Buffalo Lake here in Minnesota.”
Four-hundred-fifty prints of “Backwater Hideaway” were published, and they sold immediately.
“That was the beginning of the heyday,” Maass said. “The print business just went crazy. Everyone was buying. Dealers were telling customers if they bought a lot of them and stored them, they would go up in value. I never told anyone that, because it wasn’t true. But prints sold and sold.”
Maass wishes now he could recall some paintings he did during that period. They were so rushed, he says, they compare poorly to his work today.
Dabbling in acrylics a little over the years, Maass today works almost exclusively in oils, mixing in a typical morning all the colors he’ll need for a day’s seven-hour-long painting session.
“Today, I don’t promise any delivery dates for my commission work,” he said. “Usually I’ll say I’ll have it done in a year, or maybe a year and a half.”
• • •
Maass’ memorabilia-stuffed studio suggests the helter-skelter mind-set of a true artist.
His wife Ann, he happily concedes, is his invaluable partner in the operation, overseeing its business side.
In fact, in ways, Maass’ painting is a family affair. A daughter, Jenni, is a retired art teacher, and stepson Paul is his favorite waterfowl hunting partner.
Together each October, they travel at least once to Jimmy Robinson’s former camp on Delta Marsh, Manitoba, to hunt ducks, followed by a journey in early winter to Arkansas for flooded-timber mallards.
“I’ve been lucky,” Maass said — a paintbrush still in hand.