By Gary Koehler
Nearly 60 years after he first donated a painting to Ducks Unlimited, David Maass is still busy practicing his craft. Maass has been named 2016 Ducks Unlimited Artist of the Year for Late Autumn Greenheads—Mallards, which depicts a flock of mallards descending on a marsh. Framed prints of this iconic image will be offered at DU events this year throughout the nation. A title plate will be affixed to each picture frame.
This marks the fifth time Maass has received DU's premier honor for artistic excellence. He was recognized in 1974 and 2013 as DU Artist of the Year and was named DU International Artist of the Year in 1988 and 2004. In all, his work has raised millions of dollars on behalf of DU's continental wetlands conservation programs.
"It has been a fun career," Maass says. "And a lot of it has to do with my relationship with Ducks Unlimited. People say, 'Look at all you have done for DU.' And I quickly tell them that DU has done as much, if not more, for me. The exposure I've received has been great. If I had to do it all over again, I'd do it exactly the same way."
Maass was an up-and-coming young artist from Minnesota when his oil painting of a flock of bluebills appeared on the cover of Ducks Unlimited's first modern-format magazine in spring 1963. Since that time the magazine has featured many other Maass paintings, including most recently Heart of the Timber, which graced the cover of the November/December 2014 issue.
What some fans might not know is that Maass's relationship with DU began in the late 1950s, when he was asked to donate a painting to help support a fundraising dinner in New York City. "My first painting for DU went to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York in either 1958 or 1959," Maass explains. "I think that at the time it was one of very few DU banquets in the country. I've been told it may have been a black-tie event. The painting was of a canvasback. It went for $600 and they thought that was pretty good. I gave them a painting for two or three more years."
Back then Maass wasn't a full-time wildlife artist. After serving a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps, he returned to Minnesota and went to work for Jostens, a well-known maker of yearbooks and class rings. When Maass was designing rings at Jostens, he often traveled to the East Coast, where he would spend a day or two at Crossroads of Sport in Manhattan and at Abercrombie & Fitch, which at the time was very different from the company that it is today. "Abercrombie & Fitch was one of the top sporting goods stores in the country," Maass says. "They had stores in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. Some of my very first pieces were sold to Abercrombie & Fitch. Those early contacts were extremely important. Without them, I would not have been able to get into art full-time."
Now in his mid-80s, Maass maintains an active painting schedule. He is quick to admit, however, that his current volume of work is a far cry from his early days in the business. "Years ago, I hit it awfully hard," Maass says. "I did a lot of little paintings and some big ones. I did 73 paintings one year. I just can't do that anymore. I am a lot fussier now. I want everything to be accurate. A lot of experts look at my work and I want to get the feathers right on every bird."
Born to a hunting family, Maass was introduced to the outdoors at an early age. He continues to hunt ducks and geese, with Manitoba's Delta Marsh and Arkansas timber ranking among his favored haunts. His canvases have also featured many birds other than waterfowl. "Oh, I've done lots of pheasants and turkeys, and I love to paint woodcock," Maass says. "Besides waterfowl, my next favorite subject to paint would probably be ruffed grouse. I like to do deep woods with aspen and birch and heavy cover. I like to paint what I enjoy hunting."
Maass, who has won the federal duck stamp competition twice (1974–1975 and 1982–1983) as well as more than 35 state duck and conservation stamp contests, keeps an eye toward the work that other wildlife artists are doing, and in general he likes what he sees. "I think wildlife artists are getting better. There is a lot more realism now," Maass says. "Just look at the federal duck stamp competition—there are some awfully good artists out there. But I think it's a lot tougher now to get started. There didn't seem to be as many artists around when I was getting into it."