Wildlife Artist Paints God’s Creatures

By Brad Dokken
KARLSTAD, MN–There’s a scene in the movie “Fargo,” the offbeat, distinctly Minnesota tale of a kidnap scheme gone awry, in which the wildlife artist husband of fictional Brainerd Police Chief Marge Gunderson laments the fact that he finished behind one of the Hautman brothers in a postage stamp contest.

Instead of gracing the 29-cent stamp, Norm Gunderson’s second-place mallard painting was relegated to the 3-cent stamp. “Hautman’s blue-winged teal got the 29 cent,” Norm laments to Marge. “People don’t much use the 3 cent.”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” Marge replies. “Of course they do. Whenever they raise the postage, people need the little stamps.”

The dialogue might be fictional but the Hautmans are very real. The Minnesota brothers–James, Robert and Joe–have established themselves among the top wildlife artists in the country, and each has won the prestigious Federal Duck Stamp contest, in addition to numerous state competitions.

Nick Reitzel knows firsthand how good the Hautmans are, and how difficult they are to top in stamp competitions.

“For Minnesota, it always comes back to the Hautmans,” said Reitzel, a Karlstad artist who’s putting this northwestern Minnesota community on the map with his finishes in state fish and wildlife stamp competitions. “There’s a few guys that are just really hard to compete with. It’s really just a handful, too, but those three brothers … they always edge me out.”

Well, not quite always.

Reitzel, 50, recently won the 2008 Minnesota Pheasant Stamp contest. His painting of pheasants in a snowy setting was selected by a panel of judges as the top work among 14 entries.

There’s no financial reward for winning the stamp contest, sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, but artists retain the rights to market their paintings. The 2008 pheasant stamp with Reitzel’s winning entry will be for sale in March.

The DNR uses proceeds from the stamps, required to hunt or fish the respective species, for habitat enhancement efforts.

As a professional artist, Reitzel says the stamp competitions are a good way to gain recognition. He also won the 2002 Pheasant Stamp contest, and in 2001, took first place in Minnesota’s Trout and Salmon Stamp and Wild Turkey Stamp competitions. He placed second in the 2001, 2005, 2006 and 2007 Pheasant Stamp contests, finishing behind Joe Hautman–there’s that name again–in 2006.

“If I had more time, I’d probably concentrate on landscape,” Reitzel said. “It’s just that the stamp contests get so much recognition.”

A native of the Twin Cities, Reitzel moved to Karlstad in 2001 after learning of the small town from a friend who originally was from Thief River Falls. He’d never even visited northwestern Minnesota, much less lived there.

“This is the only part of the state I’d never been to,” Reitzel said. “I took a trip and found a good price on a house, and I was meaning to move out of the cities for a few years so I thought I’d give it a try.”

The move, Reitzel says, has been a good fit.

“This is turning out be almost a perfect place to work for what I do, just because there’s a lot less distractions,” he said. “It’s quiet, I’ve got more privacy, everything is just simpler up here.”

Reitzel said he spent about 60 hours on his latest winning pheasant stamp, a process that included rough sketches, a more detailed drawing and eventually, the final painting. Contest rules limit the artists to a particular bird or fish, but at the same time, Reitzel says, the restrictions imposed by the competitions often force him to be more innovative.

“I always try to put something in (the painting) that I personally like,” he said. “It’s usually the background.”

Sometimes, Reitzel says, the inspiration for a background setting reflects a moment he experienced decades earlier. The way the light reflected on a stand of trees, for example, or a particular moment afield with his dad, who was an avid hunter.

“These things are bouncing around in my head for years,” Reitzel said. “Sometimes, I actually write them down and file them. But some of my best ideas are impressions I got when I was a kid, and if they’re not too naive, I can use them for a more sophisticated picture.”

After finishing second to a Hautman last year, winning this year’s pheasant stamp contest was gratifying, Reitzel says; but it’s just a step in getting the work produced into a limited edition print and available for sale. Artists, after all, have to sell their work to survive.

“With each win, I’m thinking about what to do as far as promotion,” Reitzel said. “The first win is a lot of fun, but then you start thinking more in terms of business.”

It helps, he says, to have a friend in Minneapolis who owns a print shop and will publish the paintings into limited edition prints.

“For those types of prints, you have to come up with a pretty big cash payment,” Reitzel said. “He trusts me, so I can pay him in installments.”

Wildlife art arguably has given Reitzel his best recognition, but it’s not the only style he pursues. The artist has worked on a mural, actually an attachment for a cooking grill, which depicts the history of the local fire department. Caricatures also are a favorite, Reitzel says.

“What I’m trying to do is become strictly a print artist,” Reitzel said. “That would be the most enjoyable lifestyle.”

Meantime, Reitzel says, he’s on a roll. He lives sparsely in his small Karlstad home, without a telephone or other luxuries, but at the same time, the lifestyle allows him to concentrate on work without interruption.

Before Reitzel, no one from northwestern Minnesota had won a DNR fish or wildlife stamp competition. When he does venture out, Reitzel says people around town are aware of what he’s accomplished as an artist.

“These next few years I might be putting out some of my best work,” he said. “I’m looking forward to just the productivity of what I’m going to be doing.”

In terms of wildlife art, does that mean, “Look out Hautmans?”

“Hopefully,” Reitzel said.