Today we shall start to look at the career of Les Kouba, one of the more memorable artists from a state which has heavily influenced the wildlife art scene since the late 1930s. Les was not a stereotypical artist. They say that the artist’s mind generally makes for a poor businessmen; such was not the case with Les Kouba.
In addition, Les was always affable or extroverted; one of those characters whose persona was larger than life. He loved interacting with all kinds of people and made a habit of painting in public areas. On these occasions, large crowds would invariably gather to observe their local folk hero doing what he did best.
What Les Kouba did best was to paint in a way that was entertaining. Over the years, as with other successful entertainers, his fans multiplied. Les Kouba grew to become a huge celebrity in and around the state of Minnesota, where he was variously referred to as “The Dean of Minnesota’s Wildlife Artists, “The Norman Rockwell of Wildlife Art” and “The Mickey Mantle of Wildlife Art”.
During the peak of their respective careers (1950s and 1960s), it is likely that Les was more popular in Minnesota than Mantle, himself. Like “The Mick” just about everyone in the state seems to have known or met him. His popularity knew no social barriers and he was equally at home with celebrity friends such as Bob Hope as he was with the average Minnesotan.
Unlike many artists, it was the common midwesterner who accounted for an unusually high percentage of his sales. As we shall soon see, Les had an earthy background which was revealed in his art. This authentic quality allowed these people to form a strong connection with his paintings. It also provided the catalyst for repeat purchases.
The roll call for Minnesota artists who have one or more federal waterfowl stamps to their credit is truly impressive: Francis Lee Jaques (1940-41), Roger Prueuss (1949-50), Harvey Sandstrom (1954-55), Les Kouba (1958-59 and 1967-68), Edward Morris (1961-62 and 1962-63), Arthur Cook (1972-73), David Maass (1974-75 and 1982-83), Dick Plasschaert (1980), Phil Scholer (1983-84), Dan Smith 1988-89), Jim Hautman (1990-91, 1995-96, 1999-2000 and 2011-12), Joe Hautman (1992-93, 2002-03, 2008-09, 2012-13 and 2016-17), Bruce Miller (1993-94), Bob Hautman (1997-98 and 2001-02) and Scot Storm (2004-05).
All told, 15 different Minnesota artists have created the artwork for nearly one-third of the federal stamps to date (26 out of 83). While every one of these gifted artists is nationally known in the wildlife art world, in their home state – only one was revered like Les Kouba.
Early Life and Career
Leslie C. Kouba was born on a farm two miles north of Hutchinson, Minnesota on February 3, 1917 (see Figure 1). His parents, Anthony and Sophie Kouba, were first generation Americans, whose parents had emigrated from Prague, Czechoslovakia. Les was the second born of three sons.
The fact that Les was born on a farm in rural Minnesota, 50 miles west of the Twin Cities, has much to do with our story. Growing up, Les helped his parents by working on the farm. This provided Les with three essential ingredients to his success.
First, he developed a serious Depression Era farm work ethic that would serve him well later in life. Second, growing up and working on a farm, he knew the environment inside and out. As we shall see, Les would later incorporate elements of farming Americana into his art. He was one of the first wildlife artists to do so (some accounts say the very first) and by capturing everyday farming life in his work, he would develop a huge following in the heartland and one day become known as the “Norman Rockwell of Wildlife Art”.
His background allowed him to place the farm motifs within his compositions in a very organic, natural way that rural mid-westerners could not only identify with – but made sense as decorative acquisitions. More often than not, Kouba’s art perfectly suited the walls of their homes and offices.
Third, the lifestyle Les enjoyed growing up included spending a great deal of time outdoors. When very young, this amounted to playing around the farm and the surrounding countryside with his brothers and friends. Later, he spent a great deal of time hunting, fishing and trapping with his father. Les credited his father for instilling in him an appreciation for nature and wildlife.
Similarities with Maynard Reece
Les and Maynard Reece were born at about the same time, 1917 and 1920, respectively. While growing up, Les frequently enjoyed the same experience as Maynard did a little further to the south, in northwestern Iowa. When going outside to play or hunt, both occasionally witnessed the sky becoming darkened by “clouds” of passing ducks and geese.
This natural phenomena was a powerful and motivating force for both Les and Maynard, who, as fledgeling artists, attempted to capture these startling images on paper. Later, as adults, both men wrote about the impact this shared experience had on their lives.
As did Maynard, young Les began to carry pencils and paper with him everywhere, always ready for the next inspiration nature might provide. Both spent a great deal of time sketching birds, animals and fish. Again similar to Maynard, Les was not only interested in the capturing the wildlife per se – but wildlife in it’s natural habitat or setting.
As he got older, Les advanced to painting. At age 11, he sold his first painting to a wealthy farmer in nearby Hutchinson for eight dollars – a lot of money in those days! Realizing their son might have some talent, in 1931 (at age 14) his parents enrolled him in an art course provided by the Federal Schools in Minneapolis.
It was there that young Les would come under the influence of Walter J. Wilwerding, one of the midwest’s first prominent wildlife artists (see Figure 2). While many accounts have noted that Wilwerding taught Les a great deal about draftsmanship and perspective – perhaps his greatest contribution to the career of Les Kouba was as a role model and professional inspiration.
In a way, Les idolized Wilwerding, as Walter was leading the life that Les longed for. When he was not teaching art, Walter spent much of his time designing covers and providing inside illustrations for popular sporting magazines. He also provided wildlife artwork for calendar companies.
Many of Kouba’s other childhood idols, such as Philllip Goodwin, Ogden Pleissner and Lynn Bogue Hunt were known to Les only by their work in the magazines he pored over.
In the case of Wilwerding, here was living, breathing proof that his goals could one day be met. Therefore, Wilwerding’s very presence had a significant impact on Les Kouba’s life and likely helped bring his goals into focus.
I feel fortunate to be able to share with you one of Les Kouba’s earliest paintings, created during the time he was enrolled in The Federal Schools course. The images are provided by longtime Kouba collector and dealer, Arlen Axdahl (see Figures 3a and b).
An Unlikely Blessing
When Les was 15, he got kicked out of school for smoking cigarettes during class. He immediately enrolled at Maplewood Academy in nearby Hutchinson and studied art under the next important influence in his life, Miss Hartsel.
Miss Hartsel believed in the future of Les Kouba as a successful artist. She instilled enough confidence in him that Les came to believe in himself. This was invaluable at this point in his life. Les often claimed “Getting kicked out of school was the best thing that ever happened to me”.
In 1933, at the height of the Depression and at barely 16 years of age, Les packed a bag with clothes and artists supplies and left Minnesota to explore the country. As he moved from one place to the next, he supported himself by working as a commercial artist.
One of the great Kouba stories involves his work for Coca Cola. Les did not work for Coca Cola directly, he worked for the individual bottlers and distributers that could be found in just about every major town or city at that time.
Les painted eye-catching advertising signs, billboards and the lettering on Coca Cola delivery trucks (see Figures 4a and b). His specialty was painting the bottles, partially filled and beaded with sweat, that inspired consumers to buy the product.
According to the story (which has been retold in nearly all accounts of his life), Les was doing some work for a bottler in Tifton, Georgia (180 miles south of Coca Cola Headquarters, in Atlanta). On one particular day, Les decided that the venerable Coca Cola logo was “kind of heavy looking and could use more slant to the letters”, so he redesigned it.
The owner of the plant called Headquarters and told them what Les had done. They sent a team down to Tifton, including advertising management, staff artists and photographers who decided that Les had indeed improved the Coca Cola logo!
In exchange for signing a release, Coca Cola wrote Les a “sizable check” and adopted the artwork in their new advertising campaigns. Since Coca Cola did not publicly credit Les with the redesign, I have been unable to confirm this story is true. I have searched the internet for possible examples of the two different logos and may have found what Les was referring to (see Figures 5a and b).
With the Coca Cola credit, Les was able to travel anywhere in the country and be assured of work. So he did exactly that, visiting 39 states over the next three years.
Return to Minnesota
Les returned to Hutchinson in 1936 and went to work as a commercial artist. He painted advertising signs of every description, completed a large mural and even a statue. In 1937 Les attended a Thanksgiving Day dance in Plato, Minnesota. Here he met and fell in love (while dancing) with Orial Thiem of Gibbon. They were married two years later, on September 9, 1939 (see Figure 6). Les and Orial had two daughters, Bonnie and Pamela.
Commercial work slowed during WWII. His next big break came in early 1942, when the family moved into Minneapolis and Les became employed full time for the D.W. Onan & Sons Company. Onan was a manufacturer of electric generators.
Les started out working in the shop. When his supervisor learned of his artistic abilities, he was transferred to the advertising department. Les credits his stint at Onan & Sons for allowing him to learn the full range of commercial art. He started with layout, then advanced to photo retouching, illustrating and typography.
Although he enjoyed working for Onan, Les really wanted to work for himself. The management team at Onan agreed that he would be better off on his own and, before he left, provided Les with his first major account.
Les Kouba, Wildlife Artist
Les opened a studio in the Syndicate Building in downtown Minneapolis. He named his new business “Kouba Advertising Art”. Although he kept busy with his commercial work, Les longed to fulfill his childhood dream of becoming a successful wildlife artist.
He worked on commercial work during the day and painted wildlife art at night. As his studio walls were somewhat bare, he began to hang his wildlife art both there and at a friend’s business called Zesbaugh’s Picture Store, located nearby in downtown Minneapolis.
Part of American pop culture mythology is that director Mervyn LeRoy discovered Lana Turner while she was drinking a coke at the soda counter of Schwab’s Pharmacy on Sunset Boulevard. This is only partly true. While Lana was discovered at a soda counter on Sunset, it was not by LeRoy and it was not at Schwabs – it was by Hollywood publisher William Wilkerson at the Top Hat Cafe.
There is no doubt where Les Kouba’s wildlife art was discovered. According to The Legacy of Les C. Kouba, “One day Clare Fry, art director of Brown & Bigalow, a major [local] calendar firm in the United States, noticed a couple of my paintings at Zesbaugh’s…” The rest, as they say is [wildlife art] history.
Fry asked to meet with Kouba and Les was soon commissioned to create a painting for an upcoming calendar. Fry was very pleased with the painting, Daybreak on the Marshes, and published it. Soon after, Ted Kesting, the editor of Sports Afield was visiting with his friend Fry. Fry told Kesting about his new discovery, Les Kouba, and Kesting subsequently commissioned Les to create the cover art for the October, 1950 issue of Sports Afield. Kesting requested that Les paint a flock of bluebills in flight during a heavy snowstorm (see Figures 7 and 8).
After getting the cover assignment, Les wanted to meet the writer who was doing the issue’s featured piece, Northern Bluebills. The writer turned out to celebrity sports writer Jimmy Robinson, pal of Ernest Hemingway and Clark Gable.
Les and Jimmy hit it off in a big way. Jimmy requested that Les provide inside illustrations for his piece, in addition to the cover (see Figure 9). So began a lifelong collaboration and friendship between two iconic figures in American wildlife pop culture.
With the Sports Afield cover, Les Kouba was on his way to realizing his dream. He would eventually go on to create the artwork for many, many sporting magazine covers – just like his childhood idols (see Figure 10).
In the early 1950s, Les developed two of his signature touches, literally. One day a friend, Paul King, asked Les why his paintings often contained 13 subjects. Apparently this had been, until this time, a subconscious effort on the part of Les.
When it was pointed out to him, Les decided to adopt the 13 subjects as a sort of trademark. At around this same time, he began to refine his stylized signature. Eventually, he combined the two (see Figure 11).
According to Les, “My signature really evolved over the years… I kept refining it until I reached the point where I really liked it and my customers liked it as well”.
Kouba’s Career Takes Off
Les Kouba came into his own during the 1950s. In addition to the sporting magazine covers, he created artwork for numerous calendar companies, including Brown & Bigalow, Louis F. Dow and U.O. Colson. He illustrated many books with a wildlife theme for MacMillan Company of New York, including The Wilderness Cabin, North American Canoe Country, Paradise Below Zero and The New Way of the Wilderness.
Although favoring wildlife art, Les continued with his commercial work as well. He designed the Old Dutch Foods logo and many advertisements for Schmidt Beer, including 17 different can labels (often with wildlife themes, see Figure 12), Red Wing Shoes and Harvest Queen Coffee.
These were all major regional brands and helped make his work well known to people living in the midwest. Les soon graduated to national publications such as Argosy – The Complete Man’s Magazine, Ducks Unlimited Magazine and The Saturday Evening Post.
In the early 1950s, Les became more aware that people were really fascinated to watch him work, “It seemed to hold a magical attraction for them” (see Figure 13). In response, he began to schedule more painting demonstrations across the state. “I did these demonstrations for just about any group. I criss-crossed the state appearing at sportsmen’s clubs, women’s groups, the Elks, the Kiwanis and at church organizations…
To make the experience even more exciting, often times the original that I painted would be sold at auction to the highest bidder or raffled off with everyone having a chance or two”. Les enjoyed mixing with people from all walks of life. It also added to his celebrity and Les Kouba began to develop a bit of an ego.
At this point, Minnesotans and other midwesterners, especially those interested in outdoor sporting activities, were also seeing Kouba’s artwork on signs and billboards, inside stores and mail order catalogs, on their beer and coffee cans, on calendars and magazine covers on the newsstand, illustrating the books, magazines and newspapers they read – Les Kouba artwork was ubiquitous.
In recognition of his accomplishments, Les was elected President of the Society of Artists and Art Directors (SAAD) by his peers for an unprecedented three terms. Les felt truly honored.
American Wildlife Art Galleries
By the early 1950s, Kouba Advertising Art outgrew their present location. It was at this point that Les moved his operation to the Plymouth Building in downtown Minneapolis. In order to help defray his increased expenses, he decided to sell some of his originals. Les put up pegboard walls and hung his art, for sale to the public.
Word traveled fast and his originals began to sell quickly. Realizing the potential, he told his artist friends he would accept their art on consignment and sell it in his “gallery” for a nominal commission.
In 1952 Kouba Advertising Art became American Wildlife Art Galleries. The gallery specialized in original and limited edition prints of wildlife and western art by Les and his friends, including Jay N. “Ding” Darling (see Figures 14a, 14b and 15).
By 1957 American Wildlife Art Galleries was experiencing tremendous sales and growth. According to Kay Johnson, “His gallery was growing by leaps and bounds, and his own paintings were rapidly growing in popularity – discriminating collectors were snapping them up as quickly as Les could paint them”.
For collectors of fish and game stamps, the best was yet to come. In 1957 Les decided to enter the federal duck stamp art contest for the first time.