Les Kouba’s career did not slow down after winning his second federal duck stamp contest in 1966, far from it. There was, however, a conscious reduction in his commercial advertising output. After achieving national fame as a two-time duck stamp winner, Les would enjoy much success in the 1970s and 1980s while focussing on his wildlife art.
Les created a wildly popular trilogy of pheasant prints, released between 1974 and 1981, that played a major role in kicking off the wildlife art boom. During this period, the limited edition art print became ubiquitous on the walls of homes and offices across the country.
Sandwiched between these releases, Les Kouba was named Ducks Unlimited Artist of The Year in both 1976 and 1977 and won the first Minnesota waterfowl stamp design contest in 1978.
In the 1980s, Les Kouba created the artwork for the rarest and most valuable pictorial waterfowl stamp in our hobby, the (hunter type) 1985 North Dakota resident small game and habitat stamp. This was followed in 1987 by a lighthearted spoof that endeared Les to his many fans – especially those of Scandinavian descent in Minnesota – the Lutefisk Unlimited stamp and print.
So pour yourself a mug of glogg and make yourself comfortable, as we begin the conclusion to our series on Leslie C. Kouba.
The Shelter Series
Unlike many of his peers, Les Kouba was an innovative businessman. The Shelter series was significant for many reasons. This was one of the first times (some accounts say the first time) that a wildlife artist produced a series of paintings that, when viewed together, told a story.
The release of the Shelter series in print form – and its tremendous popularity – has been pointed to as one of the major factors precipitating the explosion in the number of collectors and dealers in wildlife art (to include duck stamp prints) that took place during the 1970s and 1980s.
Salesmanship aside, the series was a case where the whole was greater the sum of its parts and completion offered an emotional reward to the buyer. After acquiring the first piece in a print series, they usually committed to purchasing the remaining pieces. The print series would become a major marketing tool in the wildlife art world and subsequent generations of artists have frequently adopted a similar strategy.
The Shelter series started with a single painting in 1974, Headin’ for Shelter. Les knew he wanted to create a pheasant piece and then market it as a limited edition print, “To get ideas, I got into my car and drove around the countryside. That’s where I found the old hay rake and the corner post – typical things you would see as you walked along the roadside hunting pheasants. I made many sketches and took a lot of photos and then I built the typical upper midwest farm and painted it”.
Kouba’s background – growing up and working on a farm as a boy – would allow him to capture the the spirit of midwestern life in a way few artists could.
To each painting in what ultimately became a trilogy, Les incorporated a small camouflaged cottontail rabbit. It was an entertaining element, similar to the “hidden pictures” found in Highlights Magazine. To top it all off, each painting included the same number of pheasants; you guessed it… Kouba’s trademark 13 (see Figure 1).
According to Arlen Axdahl, the original art was a 24 x 36 oil painting on canvas that was soon sold to a man in Fargo, North Dakota for $10,500.00 (quite a substantial amount of money in 1974). An edition of 1,500 signed and numbered prints was published by American Wildlife Art Galleries and Les began to sell them in the Gallery for $40.00 (retail).
Then the unexpected happened. According to Les, “It’s hard to explain, but it’s probably the most important painting I ever did in my life. I had no idea what I was starting when it was released. It was just like cell division. One day, two went out the door, the next day four, the next day eight – the numbers just doubled and tripled. All of a sudden, I couldn’t sign them as fast as the dudes were buying them”.
Headin’ for Shelter quickly sold out but that that did not stop the demand from continuing to grow exponentially. The asking price for the print started to climb on the secondary market until interest reached a fever pitch. At this point the print started to trade for over $2,000.00 – that is, assuming you could find someone willing to part with one.
This development caught Les completely by surprise, “I kept asking myself – what is it that the people liked? I gave the idea some thought and decided to paint another pheasant picture.
[In the first painting], the pheasants were heading for shelter [from an imminent snowstorm] – I kept kicking around the title. I figured it was natural to paint these same 13 birds at the same farm and [include] that same rabbit and call it, In Shelter” (see Figures 2 and 3).
Click on Figures 3 and 4 to enlarge the images and then search for the cottontail!
Speaking about In Shelter, Les explained, “I took the birds into the farmyard – a scene I had observed many times at our farm in Hutchinson. I added the corn crib, the old John Deere Hay Mower held off the ground by a 50 gallon barrel, the corn sheller and I even tucked a wasp nest under the eves of the corn crib. It’s really a typical scene – a scene you would find on almost any farm in the midwest”.
In Shelter was published by American Wildlife Art Galleries in 1979. The edition size for the second print in the series was doubled to 3,000 – but it also proved to be insufficient to meet the demand. Les rather quickly decided to follow up with the third (and final) image in the series, Leaving Shelter. In this painting, the 13 birds (and one rabbit) are now “leaving shelter” the following spring.
Les pointed out, “I added the seed bag that was hung high up on the fence. I tried to reproduce the lettering so it would be authentic. Along the roadside some dude has tossed out a beer can. If you look closely you’ll see that it’s one of the cans I designed for Schmidt Beer. I added the Minnesota Hay Loader… I was the first to add farm machinery to my paintings, Today everybody is doing it. You have to be careful because it’s easy to place the machine in the wrong setting. It sticks out every time – like a bow tie with overalls” (see Figure 4).
The Shelter series helped earn Les Kouba one of his fondest nicknames, the “Norman Rockwell of Wildlife Art”. It also provided the savvy Kouba with a huge revenue stream, well into seven figures from this series alone, during the 1970s and 1980s.
Ducks Unlimited Artist of The Year
As we learned in part two, Les felt very strongly about giving back to nature. He accomplished this by supporting numerous wildlife conservation efforts throughout his lifetime. He was usually ready to provide his name, time and artwork to fundraising organizations. Among these was Ducks Unlimited.
In 1976 Ducks Unlimited (DU) bestowed upon Les Kouba one of its greatest honors; he was named the organization’s Artist of The Year. What made this selection especially noteworthy, is that of all the great American wildlife artists, DU chose him in 1976, for their 50th Anniversary.
Les supported DU, once again, when he created a majestic painting for the organization, titled Bluebills in Lifting Fog. Limited edition prints were created from the painting and they helped establish a new record for DU fundraising efforts.
Les revealed, “I chose bluebills as the subject because that was my first love in hunting. I wanted to generate some atmosphere so I chose fog. I painted it when the sun is just starting to burn through. It’s a stirring sight to the hunter when you hear those birds, but you can barely see them.
I put a little goodie in this painting, too. Way off in the distance is an old hunting shack and you can see a car parked next to it. That dude was so excited to get out in the marsh that he left his lights on. When he comes back in – he’s going to have one very dead battery. I painted a scene that hunters can really identify with” (see Figure 5).
Ducks Unlimited was so happy with Les and his continued contributions to their waterfowl conservation efforts – they also named him their 1977 Artist of The Year.
The 1978 Minnesota Waterfowl Stamp
In 1977, as a result of lobbying by various sportsmen’s groups including the Minnesota Waterfowl Association (MWA), the Minnesota Legislature passed a bill requiring all hunter’s between the ages of 18 and 64 to purchase state migratory waterfowl stamps.
This was not too surprising, given that Minnesotans are so into waterfowl hunting and dedicated to waterfowl conservation efforts. USFWS records indicate Minnesota sportsmen have purchased nearly 10,000,000 federal waterfowl stamps since 1934.
Fellow Minnesota artist and two-time federal duck stamp winner David Maass was commissioned to create the artwork for the first stamp. The painting was based upon the MWA logo and features three mallards flying into the sky against a background of cattails (see Figures 6 and 7).
Maass tells a great story, “The first time I met Les Kouba was in 1963 at the Minneapolis Club. That was also the first time I ever saw Les do a watercolor demonstration in front of a group of people.
Les was getting all of his stuff together to do this demonstration – he had all his brushes and paints spread out. You could tell he was going to have to paint very fast. I felt very sorry for him because I thought ‘He’s going to have to do this watercolor demonstration in front of all of these people’.
I decide that maybe I should offer to help him. ‘Is there anything I can do to help?’ Les listened and said ‘Dave, I think you can help. See my water glass [as he pointed to it]. Make sure it always stays full’. I will always remember that”.
Also in 1977, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) initiated a waterfowl stamp design contest (modeled after the federal contest) to select the artwork to be featured on the next year’s stamp.
It can be argued that the Minnesota contest competition is as tough as the federal contest. The list of past winners reads like a virtual who’s who of American wildlife artists, including Richard Clifton, Bob, Jim and Joe Hautman, David Maass, Bruce Miller, Terry Redlin, Phil Scholer, Dan Smith and Scot Storm.
In 1977, the honor of winning the first Minnesota waterfowl stamp design contest went to none other than Leslie C. Kouba. Les won with a painting featuring a pair of lesser scaup (better known as bluebills) flying low over a Minnesota lake. In the background you can see 11 additional birds, making a total of 13 in all (see Figure 8).
In 1978 American Wildlife Art Galleries released a limited edition print of Kouba’s original artwork. The title was printed beneath the image, 1978 Minnesota Waterfowl Hunting Stamp Design and the prints were then signed and numbered by Les C. Kouba. The edition size was 3,500 and naturally it was a huge seller for Les and the Gallery (see Figure 9).
It was at this time that Randy Herschman came to work for his uncle, Les, initially to help out with sales of the 1978 Minnesota waterfowl stamp print. Randy would gradually assume more and more of the responsibilities in running American Wildlife Art galleries (see Figure 10).
Always enterprising, Les decided to create something new for the conservation stamp and print market, “When I won the Minnesota [stamp]… I thought it was time for something new in the market. I decided to make my print something truly collectible, something truly valuable and unique. I gave this some thought and came up with the idea of issuing a beautifully etched medallion of the stamp image in a very limited quantity.
To make it even more sought after, I had it minted in three metals: gold, silver and bronze – just like the Olympics. It sold like hotcakes… Now everybody’s doing it, but I was the first”.
The 1985 North Dakota Waterfowl Stamp
For decades, collectors and dealers have referred to the pictorial North Dakota stamps as “waterfowl stamps” when, in fact, this is not entirely accurate. The series started in 1967 with non pictorial resident and non-resident small game stamps. They were required to hunt 10 different species, including waterfowl (see Figure 11).
The stamps were printed in booklet panes of five (1 x 5) with a tab at the top. This resulted in stamps from positions 1 – 4 having straight edges on both sides and stamps from position 5 having an additional straight edge at the bottom. Five panes were stapled together between card stock covers to form a booklet and the stamps were distributed to venders in this format for sale to hunters.
In 1981 a stamp for resident youth hunters was added and the series was renamed small game and habitat. At this point, the stamps had printed fees of $9.00, $6.00 and $53.00 for resident, youth and non-resident hunters, respectively.
As reported by fish and game scholar E.L. Vanderford in a Linn’s Stamp News article published on July 6, 1987 (click on the “+” at the lower right of your screen to enlarge), “In 1982, a persuasive art salesman [Burnett Harshman of Sport ‘en Art] convinced state officials to sell art type $9.00 stamps portraying Canada Geese”. It seems Harshman needed a pictorial “waterfowl” stamp so his company could produce limited edition prints from the original art and market them to collectors.
The artwork for the stamp was created by Richard Plasschaert. He had just recently won the federal duck stamp design contest in 1980 and his terrific pair of mallards graced the 1981 federal stamp.
Of the three 1982 North Dakota small game and habitat stamps, only the $9.00 resident stamp was produced from artwork; the youth and non-resident stamps remained non pictorial. Vanderford stated, “Stamps printed for sale to collectors were in sheets 30 (5 x 6) with perforated selvage on all four sides and plate numbers at all four corners. Stamps for hunters were issued from from booklet panes of five (1 x 5)”.
Harshman decided to print his stamps in sheets because this resulted in stamps with perforations on all four sides and also allowed for plate number blocks – two characteristics he felt would be appreciated by stamp collectors.
On the other hand, North Dakota had been printing their small game stamps in booklet panes for 15 years and wanted to keep distributing them to their vendors in this smaller, more convenient format.
Therefore, two types of pictorial resident stamps were printed starting in 1982; one was printed in large sheets for sale to collectors (see Figure 12) and the other was printed in booklets for sale to hunters. These are now commonly referred to as “collector type” and “hunter type”, respectively.
For 1982 and 1983 only, the booklet stamps were also printed with perforations on all four sides. The stamps had a selvage on both sides that was perforated between the selvage and the stamps and straight edged on the outside. Stamps form positions 1 and 5 had a similar selvage at the top and bottom, respectively (see Figure 13). Hunter type stamps with the selvage removed sell at a steep discount while those with the top or bottom selvage intact sell for a premium.
The definitive way to differentiate 1982 and 1983 hunter type stamps (that may have had their selvage removed) from their collector type counterparts is by their serial numbers. Hunter type stamps are numbered from 20,001 through 150,000.
The following is important to know. For the first four years (1982 – 1985), very few collectors and dealers were aware that the $9.00 resident stamps were still issued in the booklet pane format. The vast majority (myself included) believed the pictorial stamps were only printed in the larger sheet format, for sale to collectors and hunters alike.
Therefore, relatively few of the hunter type stamps were sold to collectors and dealers. While a fair number of North Dakota hunter/collectors purchased extra stamps and some of these have found their way into the collector market – they remain scarce to rare today.
The rarest of these is the 1985 hunter type stamp. To my knowledge, only a few collectors and one dealer, Bob Cornett, were able to acquire these stamps before they were destroyed. Cornett told me he purchased a total of 20 stamps (four booklet panes).
For this reason, the 1985 North Dakota hunter type small game and habitat stamp has the distinction of being the rarest and most valuable regularly issued pictorial stamp that was ever required to hunt waterfowl.
The artist whose work is featured on the rarest pictorial stamp is none other than Les C. Kouba. The species Les chose to paint? His favorite bluebills (Lesser Scaup), of course.
Not even E.L. Vanderford acquired any 1985 hunter type stamps directly from the state. He made a trade with Cornett for one pane. Van separated the top stamp to keep for himself (see Figure 12) and sold me the lower four stamps intact in a strip.
Later, Van later allowed me to purchase the top stamp for my own collection. For many years, I kept it together with the strip of four (on one page) before trading the strip to the Csaplars so it could included in their exhibit. It is quite possibly the largest surviving multiple of Kouba’s famous stamp.
For additional information on the North Dakota small game stamps, see their introduction in the Catalog of U.S. Non-Pictorial waterfowl Stamps.
The 1987 Lutefisk stamp
Lutefisk is a Scandinavian delicacy (and there are a lot of Scandinavians in Minnesota). It is essentially dried cod that has been soaked in a lye solution for several days to rehydrate it. The fish is rinsed with cold water to remove the lye, then boiled or baked and usually served with butter, salt and pepper. Sounds Great, right?
Well, unfortunately for many people – lutefisk is an an acquired taste and smell. For this reason, it has become the subject of many a joke. For an amusing introduction to lutefisk, see the video below:
One morning in 1987, Les was cleaning up his desk at home and listening to the radio. More specifically, he was listening to the Boone and Erickson morning program. Boone and Erickson were famous for lampooning lutefisk to their predominantly Minnesota audience.
On this particular day, “My concentration was interrupted when I heard them say say in their typical fun-loving way: ‘We’re going to get our friend, Les Kouba, to design a lutefisk stamp’ I did a double take and figured it would take Boone and Erickson to come up with such an idea.
After thinking about it for a while, I felt as an artist that it was about time to bring a little fun into the world… I figured a lutefisk stamp might be just what the doctor ordered”. Of course, a limited edition Lutesfisk Stamp print was published by American Wildlife Art Galleries (see Figures 13 and 14) .
Both the stamp and the print were (and still are) insanely popular in and around Minnesota. One of the things I love about the Scandinavian people is their ability to poke fun at themselves.
The 1988 Ducks Unlimited Stamp
In 1988 Les created artwork for yet another Ducks Unlimited stamp and print. Once again, it featured bluebills. The edition size was 5,000 and it was (again) a huge fundraiser for DU.
I have chosen to end this series of posts with this piece, as the Legacy of Les C. Kouba, by Kay Johnson, includes a wonderful photo of Les presenting the first print to his good friend Bob Hope. The framed print and stamp were given to Hope on the occasion of his 85th birthday party, at the Ordway Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota (see Figure 15).
Les would continue to paint and entertain his loyal fans for another decade. Over his 60 year career, Arlen Axdahl estimates that Les created between 50 and 65 thousand pieces of original art.
In 1998, Lelsie Kouba passed away in his sleep. The date? September 13th.
Les C. Kouba was much more than an artist; he was an entertainer and an entrepreneur. His affable personality and the ease with which he interacted with the public allowed him to transcend the ranks of typical wildlife artists and reach celebrity – if not folk hero – status. Especially in and around his home state of Minnesota.
Les Kouba was very successful financially. As such, he served as a role model for future generations of Minnesota artists who followed in his footsteps and, together, have played a major role in shaping the wildlife art world – and the hobby of fish and game stamp collecting.
As a young boy growing up on a farm, he idolized the wildlife artists whose paintings he saw reproduced on calendars and magazine covers. Les longed to live the life of a successful wildlife artist. When one of his paintings, Daybreak on the Marshes, was discovered hanging on the wall of a friend’s store in Minneapolis, his dreams began to come true.
Between 1957 and 1966 (a 10 year period), Les won the federal duck stamp contest twice, came in second three times, third once and helped his friend Ed Morris to win twice. The combined total of four wins, three seconds and a third in ten years represents the first true duck stamp dynasty.
Along the way, Les and Ed teamed with the Dutch master engraver Cornelius Bartels to create some of the most exquisite prints in the federal duck stamp collection. Whether by serendipity or fate – the results were magical.
As Les matured as an artist, he frequently revisited his roots as a Minnesota farm boy. He placed wildlife in rural midwestern farm settings that many of his peers considered too busy. However, Les was very perceptive – in tune with the kind of art that his fans could identify with and desire to place on the walls of their homes and offices.
In fact, Kouba’s folksy style was adored by midwestern people and he would eventually become known as the “Norman Rockwell of Wildlife Art”. With the Shelter series, Les Kouba is credited by some art historians for single-handedly creating both the wildlife art boom and the limited edition print craze.
Throughout his life, Les was extremely generous to many wildlife conservation organizations. It was his way of giving back to nature – that which provided him inspiration as a young boy and sent him down the path toward becoming The Dean of Minnesota’s Wildlife Artists.
I hope you have enjoyed this series of posts about Les Kouba. For those desiring to learn more, I highly recommend The Legacy of Les C. Kouba, by Kay Johnson. It is a large coffee table book, chock-full of Kouba anecdotes and beautiful color plates. It is very well done.
I would like to thank Randy Hershman and Arlen Axdahl for providing insights into the career of Les Kouba; Russell Fink for details about Ed Morris, the federal duck stamp contests and various print editions; Will and Abby Csaplar, Michael Jaffe and Richard Prager for allowing me to use pieces from their fine collections to help illustrate my posts and Kay Johnson, for doing such a magnificent job on her book – it was invaluable to this effort.