Kira Sabin (she/they) spends a year preparing for one contest. She researches, studies, photographs, sketches and paints one subject, and one subject only. Her goal? To win the only federally funded art contest — the Federal Duck Stamp Contest.
The contest has occurred every September since 1949, but in those 73 years, only three women or non-binary people have ever won. Sabin dreamed of not only adding to that number, but doing it by the age of 25.
“When I first started, I wanted to be the youngest person to win,” Sabin said with a laugh. “That opportunity has since passed, but then I wanted to win before I was 25 since the second youngest person to win was 25. I’m aware that that’s unrealistic, but it’s fun to have dreams.”
The youngest artist to win is Adam Grimm, who took the title in 2000 at the age of 21. He broke Jim Hautman’s long-standing record of winning at 25. Sabin is looking to wedge her name between those two greats, but she only has one year left.
The artists are creating stamps, but they aren’t used as postage. The winning design is used for that year’s duck hunting license, which hunters buy annually to legally hunt ducks. For every dollar spent on the pass, 98 cents goes to preserving the six million acres of land in which ducks inhabit. This odd competition, despite flying under many people’s radar, is one of the nations most successful conservation programs.
In 2018, her freshman year of college, Sabin’s grandfather came to her with the contest details. She’d never heard of it, but it seemed to be a perfect fit for her artistic talents and passion for painting realistic animals. Her interest quickly grew into an obsession — she entered the following year.
That first year, she wasn’t even close to winning.
Submissions are viewed by five judges over three rounds of judging. To make it to the second round, each judge votes every piece of artwork “in” or “out.” Contestants need a majority of “in” votes to move on. Then, every piece is rated by each judge on a scale of one to five, with the highest possible score of 25. The five highest pieces move on to the finals where the judges can only score on a three to five scale until a winner is named.
Sabin didn’t make it past the first round. In fact, she didn’t even get one “in” vote.
“I very naively believed I could win,” she said. “I think I needed that reality check to light my passion for the competition. I like to push myself and succeed, and it was very inspiring to realize I had a lot of work to do in order to perform at the level of the people I admired.”
That crushing defeat only pushed her to sharpen her skills and re-enter the next year. At 21, she was the youngest person to enter the 2020 competition. Compared to the other contestants, Sabin is unique. The typical demographic is older, white men.
“I believe this is mostly due to not a lot of diverse communities knowing about the competition and entering,” she said. “People who are aware of the competition are mostly going to be people who hunt, fish, focus primarily on wildlife painting or live in areas where these activities most occur.”
Even with the odds stacked against her, she enters every year.
In 2020, she scored the same as the year prior: zero “in” votes. She received one “in” vote in 2021, so her goal for 2022 was two votes — she got four out of five. She was now in the second round for the first time. She received a 13/25 in the second round, not high enough to move on, but she couldn’t have been happier with her progress.
While she wants to win, her 2023 goal is to be unanimously voted in during the first round of judging.
“I’m intimidated, but mostly because I feel like a bit of an impostor,” Sabin said. “I’m confident in my abilities, but I’m aware that my painting style is not like the masters of the traditional wildlife style that some people have been practicing for decades.”
Sabin graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design with a Bachelors of Fine Arts in drawing and painting in 2021. When she’s not drawing ducks, she runs a small, family-owned online store called Raspberry Doodle.
“My family and in-laws are artists, and we spend our time being creative and running the business sides of our endeavors,” she said. “I oil paint, make custom clothing, I’m a writer and I’m a content creator. It’s very easy to stay busy when you’re your own boss.”
Like many others, Sabin looked to TikTok during the pandemic. She used the platform to share the contest that has brought her so much joy. She notes that as an artist, she needs to do her own promotion and marketing.
“I first thought to specifically show the duck stamp because I think it’s so fun,” Sabin said. “I thought people could get a kick out of duck paintings being taken so seriously and there was no harm trying to inform more people about it. I never thought it’d reach quite as many people as I have, but I’m so very grateful.”
She now has over 260,000 followers and details every step from research and creation to judging day. Even with all of this on her plate, Sabin still has many goals and dreams she’d like to accomplish.
“My end goal is to improve my skills, spread awareness and spark genuine passion in a younger generation for this competition and wildlife in general,” she said. “I truly just believe it’s all very fun and silly when it comes down to it — a prestigious competition of painting ducks — that’s so funny. Of course, I want to win, though, that’s on my goal list for sure.”
While she wants to win, at the end of the day, it’s more than a contest to Sabin. It goes beyond the art.
“I want to be successful enough that I can help others,” she said. “That has always been a dream of mine. I want to buy my mom a house. I want to donate to wildlife organizations. I want to raise awareness on climate issues and support causes that are changing the world for the better. I want to do a lot, and that’s what keeps me going.”