July 17, 2020
By Lynn Burkhead
In the competitive world of duck stamp paintings, Maynard Reece was the original king of the duck blind.
Reece, who died on July 11, 2020 at the age of 100, was a five-time winner of the Federal Duck Stamp art competition, his work adorning several of the stamps required for U.S. hunters 16 years old and older to legally chase migratory waterfowl each fall.
Only in recent years has his record been challenged as the Hautman brothers have staked their claim to the title of best duck stamp artist ever with James and Joseph winning the contest five times each and Robert winning the event three times.
Long before the Hautmans arrived on the scene, Reece was arguably the best, a titan in the sporting art fraternity that painted with attention to detail few others have been able to match.
But while the Iowa artist painted numerous works during his long and storied career, it is a 1959 duck stamp—which has the official moniker of Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp—he is undoubtedly best known for.
Born in Arnolds Park, Ia., in 1920, Reece was the son of a Quaker clergyman and was attracted to the Midwestern outdoors at an early age. Taking his first duck as a youth, Reece’s first artistic success came in 1933 when his pencil drawing of mallards won a contest at the Iowa State Fair when he was only 12
A graphic artist early in his professional life, Reece made his home in Des Moines in the 1940s, meeting cartoonist and celebrated wildlife conservationist Jay N. "Ding" Darling, the father of the Federal Duck Stamp, who helped mentor the young Reece in the more than two decades of their friendship.
Reece’s artistic talent and his attraction to wildlife and the outdoors lifestyle eventually led him into a full-time career where he became one of the nation’s best wildlife artists. With numerous original paintings, conservation group prints, state duck stamps, and magazine artwork—he was hired by Life Magazine to produce freshwater and saltwater fish images—the painter became a force in conservation fundraising as his work raised countless dollars for wildlife and habitat.
Nowhere was that more evident than in his Federal Duck Stamp competition, an event that Reece captured in 1948, 1951, 1959, 1969, and 1971.
The 1959 stamp image, known to almost every waterfowler as well as countless others, was a classic pose of one of history’s most celebrated Labrador retrievers, King Buck. In the painting, the retriever with a graying muzzle is seen holding a mallard drake in a stoic pose that all but defines the long-running fundraising stamp produced annually by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Entitled by Reece as "Labrador Retriever -- Holding Mallard," the winning image marks the only time in the Federal Duck Stamp's long history dating back to 1934 that a waterfowl species hasn't been the stamp’s featured subject.
According to the Smithsonian Institution's Postal Museum website, reaction from the public was somewhat lukewarm when the stamp was first issued. Produced in black, blue, and yellow, the first multi-colored Federal Duck Stamp carried the conservation message "Retrievers Save Game."
Released on July 1, 1959, the stamp image eventually went viral, becoming one of the most iconic waterfowl images of all-time, recognizable to millions of duck hunters and conservationists.
In winning the 1959 competition with his painting of King Buck, Reece—whose artwork graced periodicals such as Sports Illustrated and the Saturday Evening Post along with two books, The Waterfowl Art of Maynard Reece and The Upland Bird Art of Maynard Reece—became the first person to win the federal duck stamp competition a total of three times.
While the King Buck duck stamp painting is one of Reece’s most celebrated works of art, he was far from done in his career. In fact, his work has been so popular that several dozen paintings and artifacts are displayed in the Iowa State Historical Museum while others hang on walls across the Iowa State University campus.
The latter location includes one of Reece’s most noted recent works, an ongoing painting entitled "90-Something Mallards," which the artist describes in a statement on an Iowa State University website:
"In the year 2000 my wife, June, decided that I should make an 80 mallard painting to celebrate my 80th birthday," stated Reece in 2013. "It was such a success I decided to make a 2005 and a 2010 painting portraying 85 and 90 mallards to honor my 85th and 90th birthdays.
"I asked my two boys how they would divide the three paintings when I died, and they said, ‘Just make a 95 mallard painting.’ So this Ninety Something – Mallards painting has 93 mallards in it and every year I’m alive I will add another mallard."
While Reece was described by media reports as sharp and still painting in recent years, he apparently never got to work on turning his last effort into "100 Something—Mallards" as the COVID-19 outbreak kept him confined to the retirement community home that he lived in.
The coronavirus outbreak made his 100th birthday celebration this spring somewhat different as his two surviving sons, Mark and Brad, had to reportedly Facetime their famous father rather than gather with him in person.
Reece’s funeral service is being impacted as well, with a gathering of immediate family only for a graveside service. The obituary on the Wallace Family Funeral Home website shows that "A celebration of Maynard’s Life" will be held at a later date.
In lieu of flowers, anyone wanting to honor Reece’s memory is asked to make a donation to the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, 505 Fifth Ave., No. 4444, Des Moines, Iowa, 50309.
Or maybe, when you go to the Post Office to buy your 2020 Federal Duck Stamp for this fall’s upcoming waterfowl hunting seasons, think about buying an extra one.
The first for your license—don’t forget to sign it—and the second one in honor of Maynard Reece.
Something tells me that one of the nation’s best duck stamp artists might have liked that idea, buying an extra one for the ducks.