This article first appeared in the Minnesota Waterfowler, Vol. 6, No. 2, Summer 1987 by the late great, Steve Kufrin, long time Minnesota Watrfowler Editor.
Reprinted from the Minnesota Waterfowler Vol. 6, No. 2 Summer 1987
David Maass leaned down and for the first time in many seasons inspected the ducks he had painted on a sign for the Minnesota Waterfowl Association a number of years ago.
He smiled, stepped back, moved closer to inspect the ducks again and grinned. “After seeing the sign today for the first time since I did it – I’ve seen photographs of it – I don’t know why I painted only two of the mallards and not the three.” He wondered. “I wish I could remember, but maybe if I went back through my correspondence I could find out why.”
One of the most famous and respected wildlife artists in the U.S., Maass was trying to recall when he painted the MWA ducks on the sign. Although the sign’s whereabouts was unknown until this spring, Greg Berg, MWA director of chapter operations, rediscovered it in Brainerd.
The ducks on the sign painted by Maass are similar to the official MWA logo painted by the Long Lake artist in 1970 or 1971. Except in one respect: There is only one drake and one hen mallard on the sign, although the official logo features two greenheads and a suzie. Perhaps the sign was too small to include the second drake, which is above and to the rear of the closest greenhead?
The ducks on the sign, Maass said, were painted on the persistence of Ray Hangge, a former state president of the waterfowl association from Albert Lea. That was after Maass had designed and painted the official MWA logo, which was to become Minnesota’s first waterfowl stamp in 1977.
“It seems like everything that I did connected with the Association was Ray Hangge calling me and telling me he had a project that had to be done in two days.” Maass remembered with a laugh. “My immediate reaction was that I couldn’t do it, but somehow Ray always talked me into it”.
“I would guess I painted the sign about 1972 and it was prior to doing the duck stamp design, but it was after I had designed the new logo for the association. Then, because the Minnesota Waterfowl Association was so influential with the legislature in getting the (waterfowl stamp) bill through, they decided to use their logo which I had designed for the first stamp.”
A friendly, comfortable man, Maass has been to wildlife art what the mallard had been to the marsh. In total, he’s designed 12 duck stamps, and 13 conservation stamps – two of his paintings were selected for the Minnesota Waterfowl stamp and two have graced the federal duck stamps.
Ron Van Gilder, also a Minnesota artist and one of the best in the business, once said that he doesn’t paint many waterfowl in flight because David Maass does them so well.
Another Maass trait in his ability to transport the person viewing one of his paintings onto the marsh as the mallards return from breakfast or into the forest as ruffed grouse rocket through aspen. That quality, Maass pointed out, is what he tries to achieve when he paints a scene – to develop an atmosphere which takes viewers back to one of their special times afield. “Not that the wind always has to be blowing, but maybe it’s a misty morning, a quite morning with a lot of haze and mist. I try to create a feeling in a painting.” He said modestly.
Maass, his wife, Ann, and his 12-year old stepson, Paul, live on Lake Minnetonka near Long Lake. Near the family’s home, a restored log cabin serves as the artist’s quarters. “I’ve been very fortunate, but I’ve worked very hard at it,” Maass says of his illustrious career. “I started at a very young age and there really wasn’t as much in wildlife art as there in now. “I had a chance to develop my career with very little competition, so to speak, and I use that work loosely, because I really don’t think there’s competition in the field. I think that we kind of compliment each other, the different wildlife artists, because everybody works in a different style. I think anybody who’s willing to devote the time and effort can becaome successful at it.”
After pouring a cup of coffee, Maass said he began drawing at the age of three or four, according to what his mother told him, and that his interest in drawing continued as he grew older, then was stimulated even more because of his mother’s and stepfather’s interest in shooting – his mother was a state trap-shooting champion – and the outdoors. After graduating from highschool, Maass had intentions of attending art school. Instead, because veterans returning from World War II had educational preference, he sought employment and was hired by Josten’s of Owatonna. Eventually he worked his way up to the art department, where he polished his drawing skills. His next assignment was with the U.S. Marine Corp in San Diego, Calif. “I was away from Minnesota and I really missed the hunting, everything that went with it, so I started doing some painting in the Marines,” he continued. “When I came back (to Minnesota) I kept at it and shortly after that, about 1957 or ’58, started marketing my work. I sold a few paintings earlier than that, but it was in the late ‘50s when I got my work into the Crossroads of Sport in New York and Abercrombie and Fitch, some of the galleries, which were about the only places at that time that sold wildlife art. That went along about 10 years, then Wild Wings (in Lake City) started up and they started publishing my work right away. That was in the early ‘70s, just about the time the waterfowl association was getting going and everything else was really starting to happen. In 1974 I won my first (federal) duck stamp (wood ducks) and that was a big boost.”
The rest in history and success. Maass enjoys creating the “big paintings,” when he can choose what he wants to paint, especially the hunting scenes, the memories that are hunting oriented and involve the outdoor sportsperson – grouse flushing through aspen or canvasbacks bucking the wind as the bore over dark waters boiled by the November wind.
Not surprisingly, the canvasback is his favorite duck species to paint. He also admits to a fondness for hunting late-season bluebills under cold, steely clouds, when the breath of wind forms ice on decoys and coffee tastes great lukewarm.
“I like canvasbacks because they’re big and powerful,” says Maass fondly with due respect. “I like the way they fly when they get their bull-necks down. To me, they’re really an interesting duck. Incidentally, one of the duck stamps I did for the State of Maine featured eiders, the common eider. I had never really done much work at all with eiders, but watching them flying, studying them, they’re much like canvasback. They’re big, heavy, with a thick neck. They’re actually a little bigger (than cans) and I like that type of duck.
“I like bluebills too, but the canvasback to me is the ultimate diver.”
Artists who have influenced Maas during his rise to national prominence include Stuart Ferreiera, a close friend from their days at Josten’s who encouraged him to paint wildlife; David hagerbaumer, whom Maass met in the Marine Corps; plus notables such as Owen Gromme, Bob Abbett and Van Vilder.
Maass prefers to paint with oil paints – he has done some pencil work and watercolors – because he likes the wat the oils work to suit him and enable him to achieve the shading and blending he desires. Although some artists prefer acrylic paints, because they dry quickly, Maass said he’s learned to work on a wet area of the canvas and develop a fine line without waiting for the undercoat to dry – he prefers working on a wet canvas with wet paints.
Much of the excitement of painting wildlife is the opportunity to be afield to study the creatures he portrays. That means Maass is devoting more time to research and study the species he paints. While research and study does mean fewer hours in his log cabin painting, it enables him to continue his drive for realism.
“I probably paint between 15 and 20 paintings a year and spend a lot more time in the field for research,” he points out. “Ten or 12 years ago there was a year when I did 70 paintings. But then I was spending a lot more time painting and I wasn’t really getting out as much as I should have.”
If it would be possible to select a favorite from the hundreds of paintings he has completed, Maas said it probably would be the bobwhite quail he painted a few years ago. The quail are portrayed in a ravine near Waterville, where he and a friend were trying to establish coveys of pen-raised bobwhites.
Maass and the friend were able to release some coveys that existed for as long as two and three years. It was during that time when he created the scene that is memorable to him. “It’s one that I like about as well as any, but it’s not one that other people probably like as well as I do,” he admitted. “Most people go for the grouse and the birches, the canvasbacks coming in over rough water, but this to me I thought really captured the way those little bobwhites looked nestled down in the brush.”
A major task now is working on and completing a waterfowl series that celebrates each major waterfowl flyway in North America. He’s also working on a painting, featuring woodcock for the Ruffed Grouse Society.
In between, Maass says he fancies having a 12-year-old son to share the hunt and to fish with, to toss the baseball back and forth, to watch him compete in Little League baseball. A daughter, Jenni Doyle, lives near Zumbrota Falls with her husband. She is also involved in art, but in the field of art education.
When the artist is not painting, researching, hunting or fishing, he enjoys hitting the tennis ball, shooting with Paul, boating on Lake Minnetonka, biking and traveling.
In 1979 he collaborated with Gene Hill and supplied 50 reproductions of his paintings to accompany Hill’s successful book, “A Gallery Of Waterfowl And Upland Birds.” He’s also involved in another book at the present time, a biography on David Maass being written by Jack Samson, a former editor of Field and Stream magazine. The book , which will include paintings by Mass in his distinctive style, will probably be released to the public in a year. In the meantime, while Maass patrons wait, where is the artist heading with his oils on canvas? “I guess in one word – improve!” he answers. “I’m not talking about selling more paintings or even necessarily branching out. Everyone says, “Well, why don’t you do other things?” I put so much study into the birds that I paint that my main goal is to learn to do them better. That’s not saying I won’t try a few things – I oainted a pair of cardinals a while back and I may do some pelicans – but I love the canvasbacks, the ruffed grouse, the woodcock.”
To strive for improvement is not surprising for a perfectionist, a warm, comfortable man to spend some hours with chewing the fat, an accommodating person with an engaging smile and an enthusiasm for life and the natural beauty he discovers and creates.
Success has not spoiled David Maass.