Reece draws on naturalist’s insight to bring wildlife images to life
By Chris Madson
Why does Maynard Reece paint wildlife? The answer is simple: It’s in his blood.
“I was born in Arnold’s Park, Iowa,” he says. “I tell people I was only a hundred yards from being born a duck.”
In the wake of a century of drainage and corn farming, Arnold’s Park isn’t one of the most noted wilderness settings in North America, but not so long ago, it was surrounded by a maze of lakes and sloughs, the epicenter of Iowa’s most celebrated duck country. Market hunters in the 1880s told of filling double wagon boxes with a day’s kill of waterfowl. Nearly a lifetime later, one of the local gunners recalled: “Many mornings these lakes were just black with ducks. I don’t think there was a place in the state of Iowa, or any other place, where there have been as many birds.”
By 1920, when Reece came into the world, the mid-continent’s waterfowl was already fading, but there was enough left to make an indelible impression on a young boy’s imagination.
“I think you are either a water person or a land person,” Reece observes. “I’m a water person. I grew up on the water in leaky boats, and I shot my first duck with a slingshot.”
With a strong heritage of market gunning in his home country, Reece naturally took up waterfowling, but his interest in wetlands reached far beyond hunting. “I had a neighbor in Arnold’s Park who was somewhat of a naturalist, though he was actually a carpenter by trade,” Reece says. “He taught me how to collect butterflies. I was collecting butterflies at 3 and 4 years old. I got very good at it — I learned their flight patterns and everything else. I was drawing ducks and other animals at an early age.”
He started with pencils, and when the need for color overtook him, he switched to barn paint. A grade school teacher introduced him to watercolor, and soon thereafter, he made up his mind to be an artist.
The Great Depression didn’t fall quite as heavily on Iowa as it did on farm country to the southwest, but times in Arnold’s Park were still lean. In his teens, Reece confronted two hard realities: As the son of a Quaker minister, he didn’t have the financial backing to go to college, and, as a lover of marshes, he was condemned to watch while drought and draglines put an end to Iowa’s wetlands. The experience gave him the second great theme in his professional life — a deep belief in the need for wildlife conservation.
Reece graduated at the top of his high school class, loaded up his brushes and his enthusiasm for wild places, and headed for the most logical place — the Iowa Museum of Natural History in Des Moines. At the time, the market for wildlife art and illustration was meager. Even the great Carl Rungius was known to pad his income by painting backgrounds for museum dioramas. Francis Lee Jaques was painting for the American Museum of Natural History in New York; Owen Gromme was working for the Milwaukee Public Museum. If museum work was good enough for artists of that caliber, Reece figured it was good enough for him.
Except for a two-year stint with Meredith Publishing Co. in Des Moines, Reece spent the next seven years with the museum. His work there was on a par with a college degree in zoology.
“I worked with experts in natural history,” he recalls. “I also learned taxidermy, which gave me a better understanding of animals’ anatomy.”
He also met J.N. “Ding” Darling, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist at the Des Moines Register and Tribune. An ardent conservationist, Darling had served as director of the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey (forerunner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), launched the National Wildlife Federation and campaigned tirelessly to get politics out of state and federal wildlife management. Reece treasured Darling’s critiques.
“He could relate to me things I would have done wrong in my painting,” Reece says. “I can remember one specific item. I had made a painting of pronghorn antelope, and I had them leaping. He said, ‘I think, Maynard, you’ll find that, when they’re in full flight, they run flat-out, like a racehorse.’ And I studied them more, and he was correct. Those were invaluable things for me.”
In 1943, Reece joined the Army, serving with V-Mail and the Signal Corps. He spent some time in a New Jersey billet, which gave him the opportunity to meet Jaques and artist James Perry Wilson, who also painted diorama backdrops for the American Museum of Natural History.
“Jaques was definitely an influence on me,” Reece says. “I religiously followed all his habitat backgrounds in museums in New York and Minneapolis, as well as other places. I also had every one of his books. I was fascinated by his sense of design in black and white.”
After a tour in Europe, Reece left the Army to begin a career as a freelance artist, painting natural subjects for any magazine or book publisher who would buy.
“I was doing insects,” he says with a laugh. “I was doing deficiencies of corn and legumes. I did poisonous weeds and noxious weeds.”
Then he met artist Roger Tory Peterson, who was the art director for the National Wildlife Federation. The federation’s founder, Ding Darling, had brought the duck stamp idea along with him into the fledgling organization. The Washington, D.C.-based group was famous for its annual issue of blocks of stamps illustrated with wildlife paintings, and Peterson invited Reece to contribute.
“I was delighted,” he remembers.
Back in Des Moines, Darling encouraged Reece to submit art for the federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, the world-famous “duck stamp.” Darling himself had drawn the first duck stamp in 1934. In subsequent years, Jaques, Richard Bishop, Owen Gromme and Lynn Bogue Hunt had won the contest for the design, which was steadily becoming a benchmark of success in the tiny community of wildlife artists. At Darling’s urging, Reece entered the 1947 duck stamp contest. In 1948, he won the competition with a wash-and-tempera painting of three buffleheads.
In this day of hype and marketing, the federal duck stamp competition is known as a “œmillion-dollar contest.” In those days, however, a duck stamp win was similar to every other triumph in wildlife art — a little glory and practically no cash. Reece says he may have sold as many as 300 prints of the winning composition. His share of the retail price was $7.50 a print.
It was the beginning of an unparalleled streak in the duck stamp contest. Reece won again in 1951, 1959, 1969 and 1971. He is the only artist to win the federal competition five times. In the history of the duck stamp contest, only nine others have won it more than once, and only two others have won it as many as three times.
All five of his duck stamp compositions are memorable, but the 1959 painting is unique in the annals of the competition. It’s the only duck stamp work that doesn’t feature a live duck. The focus of the painting is a black Lab with a dead mallard in its mouth. The dog is King Buck, five-time national retriever champion.
Reece’s years in a duck blind are reflected in his study of Buck’s face — the intelligence, discipline and commitment to task that waterfowlers revere in their dogs are all there. Reece took a significant risk with the subject, and it turned out to be the best known, and probably the best loved, of all the federal duck stamp designs. It may be a tribute to the power of the painting that contest rules were changed the following year to prohibit the use of animals other than waterfowl.
Reece’s success with the federal stamp competition and dozens of state waterfowl stamp contests probably stems from two of his most basic precepts. One is accuracy. Through his years of painting, he has always tried to show animals as they really are. He has drawn from the counsel of deeply experienced outdoorsmen, from museum specimens and scientific literature. Most of all, he has leaned on a lifetime of experience in the field. He used photographs to record some landscapes, but he says he trusts his eye and paintbrush more. He sketched constantly, using oils and watercolor to capture the essence of the texture and light he sees in the outdoors.
The second hallmark of his work is simplicity. Unlike many artists, Reece paints the animals in his compositions first. A technique he learned from Jaques, it allows him to build a background that enhances his subject. In Reece’s view, the first step in that process is to simplify.
“The advantage of art is that you can select, choose, interpret and eliminate,” he says. “It’s not a copy of anything; it’s your idea of what you want to show. If you don’t like something, you don’t put it in. I spend more time trying to avoid detail; I strive to get rid of it because I think you have a stronger design when you eliminate the fussy details.”
Reece may be best known for his waterfowl, but his work ranges far beyond ducks and geese. In 1951, he contributed the color plates for the book, “Iowa’s Fish and Fishing.” Painted from live fish held in aquariums at the Iowa Museum of Natural History, the images were a revelation to anglers, biologists and art lovers alike. They made such an impression that Life magazine invited Reece to paint the game fish of North America for a special color spread. He traveled the continent to look at live fish and their habitats. Two years later, he was asked to do a similar collection of saltwater fish for the magazine.
Featured among Reece’s many published works are giraffes and white-tailed deer, pintails and pelicans, rainbow trout and ruffed grouse. He’s worked in pencil, pen, watercolor, oil, stone lithography and bronze. And in 1985, he added the printed word to his palette, writing the text that accompanied his art in “The Waterfowl Art of Maynard Reece.” In 1997, he produced a companion volume, “The Upland Bird Art of Maynard Reece.” The artwork is what millions of his fans have come to expect — beautifully composed, accurate in every detail of plumage and habitat, and imbued with a sense of being there that is incomparably “Reece.” His writing, like his art is clear, accurate and founded in more than 70 years of field experience.
Reece has spent a lifetime pursuing the unattainable. “Instead of getting easier, painting seems to be getting harder,” he reflects. “I think the reason is that you are trying to do harder things. There are rather elusive things, effects that you can’t ever get unless you struggle with it.”
Wildlife art critics have consistently recognized the success of that struggle. Reece has been chosen as Distinguished American Artist by American Artist magazine; he was Ducks Unlimited’s Artist of the Year in 1973; the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wis., named him its Master Wildlife Artist at the 1989 Birds in Art show; and he has received two awards from the New York Directors Club.
In addition, Reece has made huge contributions to wildlife conservation. His stamps and prints have raised millions of dollars for state and federal wildlife agencies, as well as private-sector groups like Ducks Unlimited, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Quail Unlimited and Pheasants Forever. He’s served as honorary president of the Izaak Walton League, a board member for the Outdoor Writers Association of America, and he chaired Iowa’s Committee on Conservation of Outdoor Resources in 1963. He’s a member of 10 major conservation groups.
Maynard Reece’s work captures the image of the outdoors and the substance, the love of wildlife and wild places, and the commitment to preserving them. Ultimately, it’s what makes his painting fine art.
Chris Madson is a freelance writer and photographer who also edits Wyoming Wildlife magazine. He’s been an OWAA member since 1978.