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Kira Fennel, "Black-Bellied Whistling Duck" (2019), oil on paper (courtesy the artist)

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Kira Fennell, a 22-year-old artist from Inver Grove Heights in Minnesota, has been working around the clock in recent days, sometimes up to 10 hours a day, touching up and perfecting a painting of a duck that she’s been working on for weeks. Fennell is on a race against time to complete her third submission to the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, an esoteric but highly competitive annual competition organized by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, before the submission deadline on August 15.

The competition raises millions of dollars annually for the preservation of wetlands and wildlife from sales of $25 duck-themed stamps. Purchasing the stamps is mandatory for anyone applying for a migratory bird hunting license. In addition, a Federal Duck Stamp grants free pass into any national wildlife refuge that charges an entry fee. Dating back to 1934, the program has raised more than $1.1 billion to conserve more than 6 million acres of waterfowl habitat, according to the Fish & Wildlife Service.

Artist Richard Clifton’s winning entry to the 2020 Federal Duck Stamp contest (courtesy the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

For the competition, artists must choose one of five bird species: the greater white-fronted goose; Ross’s Goose; blue-winged teal; redhead; or king eider. The winner does not receive a cash prize but past winners are known to have sold prints in hundreds of thousands to collectors, earning the competition the moniker, “Million-Dollar Duck.”

The relatively unknown competition has made headlines this year, becoming the center of a cultural war between American conservatives and liberals. A recent proposal by the Joe Biden administration aims to reverse the Trump administration’s requirement that Federal Duck Stamps feature a hunting theme. Trump’s 2020 revision to the rules of the Federal Duck Stamp contest mandated a “waterfowl hunting-related scene or accessory in every entry.” At the time, wildlife artists who were not keen on depicting bird hunting scenes protested the move, saying it infringed on their artistic freedom. Now, some hunting groups are seething against Biden’s reversal of the rule, which they find offensive to the American waterfowl hunting heritage, Bloomberg reported.

“Hunters are the people that pay, and paid for, the North American model of conservation,” wrote hunter Mike Mancini from Monroe, Wisconsin in an online comment on the proposal filed in a governmental website. “We should be celebrated, not denigrated, for our efforts.”

Mancini’s comment is countered by many other self-identified hunters supporting the Biden administration’s revision. The change would come into effect in the 2022 contest. But this year, artists must abide by Trump’s rules, leading contestants like Fennell to feature a hunter in the distance, shotgun hulls floating in the water, or unused hunting gear, to avoid any direct depictions of bird shooting (the competition’s rules ban depictions of dead birds).

Artist Kira Fennell working on her submission to the Federal Duck Stamp contest in her living room (courtesy the artist)

Meanwhile, Fennell has become the young face of the competition thanks to her viral TikTok videos, in which she explains the contest and chronicles the progress of her submission. Her engaging and endearing videos, co-starred by her cat Elton, drew new audiences to an otherwise obscure competition, with thousands cheering for her to win this year’s competition. The artist also received a recent feature on BuzzFeed, which further swelled her fandom.

Fennell was drawn to the contest by her grandfather, who is a hunter when he sowed her the stamps about two years ago. “I have been obsessed since then and entering the contest every year,” she told Hyperallergic in an interview.

@kirafennell

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When asked about the unlikely popularity of her Tik Tok videos, Fennell explained: “I think it reminds people of nature paintings in art classes in elementary school and middle school that they forgot about.”

For her submission, Fennell chose to depict two Ross’s Gooses flying over a lake while a hunter on a boat is preparing decoys in the background. “I like their white feathers in the sun,” she said, explaining her preference.

Kira Fennell’s near-finished painting for the Duck Stamp contest (courtesy the artist)

According to Fennell, hyperrealism is one of the requirements of the contest. “They demand hyperrealism because they want the anatomy of birds to be accurate,” she explained, adding, “I really love the creative entries but they never progress that far.”

Though she was voted out of the contest last year, Fennell is far from giving up. This time, she’s also coming with a flock of supporters who will be closely following the contest’s live stream on September 24 and 25 (the contest includes three rounds).

“In my opinion, you already won,” wrote one of her followers in a comment on her latest video.

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Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...

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