Maass' magical duck paintings haven't lost their luster

Posted: Wednesday, March 01, 2000

WAYZATA, Minn. (AP) -- In the artistic mind of David Maass, there's always a wild bird winging in the air -- any time, any place. Mallards climbing to the sky. Canvasbacks pumping low over stormy water. A ruffed grouse darting through the rippled water.

''I just love them,'' Maass said, looking around at his studio walls covered with wild birds. Some painted, some stuffed.

It has been a long love affair. For nearly 40 years, the artwork of this Minnesota native has been in demand.

Yet it seems like only yesterday when Maass joined the big leagues of wildlife artists by winning the coveted Federal Duck Stamp contest in 1974 with a painting of wood ducks.

It wasn't luck.

Maass won again in 1982 with his favorite duck species, the canvasback. Today, at age 70, Maass is one of the most respected artists in his field.

''You're not going to print my age, are you?'' Maass asked, a boyish grin covering a young face. ''It doesn't seem possible, does it?''

No, but then, what Maass conveys on canvas also seems impossible, too.

He is the consummate artist of nature's moments, complete with background details most eyes never see.

''I like landscape. And most of my work are landscapes with birds in them,'' Maass said. ''The anatomy of a tree is just as important as the bird.''

A Maass painting is like looking out the window at Mother Nature. Growing up in Southeast Minnesota, Maass was introduced to the natural world by his stepfather, Kelly Jacobs.

''Kelly started taking me duck hunting when I was 7 years old. He was an avid duck hunter. We always went hunting in the Weaver Bottoms on the Mississippi,'' Maass said.

The duck hunting memories became permanent.

''My love of ducks goes back to hunting them,'' he said. ''Even now, when I see a flock of mallards, I can feel a thrill. I guess it's kind of in my blood. Plus, I love to eat ducks.''

Maass' taste for painting ducks also has not waned with time.

''I think I'm painting more accurately than ever,'' he said. ''My last 10 paintings now are better than those 20 years ago, I think. And when I see my work from 30 to 35 years ago, I wonder why anybody would want to buy it.''

The Maass magic of the past 15 years occurs in a rustic art studio a short walk from a secluded, woodsy home on Lake Minnetonka shared with his wife, Ann, and a stepson, Paul. A married daughter, Jenni Doyle, also lives in the Twin Cities.

Maass said he paints fewer works these days, but takes more time and care for each effort. ''One year I did 72 paintings,'' he said, shaking his head.

A new Maass effort recently has come off the presses. ''Wildfowl of North America'' is a collection of 32 bird paintings with text by Michael McIntosh.

''Years ago I had a waterfowl book that I liked. One day I realized that we had 50 Maass originals that would make a wonderful book, so that's how it happened,'' said Bill Smith, president of Brown & Bigelow, the St. Paul publisher.

''I don't even think about retiring,'' Maass said. ''As an artist, I've tried to improve with every painting. It seems the more you learn, the more you realize how much you still have to learn.''

On canvas, there's not much left for Maass to achieve. He has won dozens of state wildlife stamp contests, and he has been honored by nearly every major conservation organization, ranging from Ducks Unlimited to the National Wild Turkey Federation.

His brush strokes hang in just about every notable art museum, including the Smithsonian's National Collection of Fine Art in Washington, D.C.

So are his skies full of ducks now?

''I don't have time left to do all I want to do,'' he said, standing next to another duck painting waiting to be finished.

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