As a painter, Bruce Miller has the satisfaction of winning one of the greatest prizes in sporting art—an achievement that would be career-defining for most people. By claiming the 1993-1994 Federal Duck Stamp for his portrayal of a drake and hen canvasback, he entered a rare club of masters whose imagery has been carried in the wallets and vest pockets of millions going afield.
And yet, if you ask Miller today about the feat—and indeed I did this autumn as he was setting out for his family’s hunting shack in southwestern Minnesota—he’ll tell you this: “Winning the Federal Duck Stamp was a tremendous honor especially at that point in my life,” he said. “But I’ve never wanted to be defined just by that. I want to be known as someone whose body of artwork is good enough to stand the test of time, to hopefully be compared favorably with the finest sporting artists who ever lived.”
Considering that other Federal Duck Stamp winners include, among others, Frank Weston Benson (1862-1951), Francis Lee Jaques (1887-1969), Walter Alois Weber (1906-1979) and Richard Bishop (1887-1975), whose paintings are found today in the best fine art and natural history museums in America, it’s a heady ambition.
After Miller’s triumph in 1993 as a 41-year-old, his reputation as a champion duck painter was both an accolade and curse. “Early in my career, the reference that a person painted photo-realistically was a compliment but as I started to enter other shows, it was a criticism coming in the form of a question: ‘Is that the only way you known how to paint?’”
Miller underwent a period of soul-searching. “It’s like you are king for a year and then you ask, ‘Okay, now what?’ Around that time, I was sitting in my boat fishing on Lake Minnetonka (west of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul) and I saw this painting by artist Nancy Howe in a magazine. She had been a Federal Duck Stamp winner. It was a portrayal of chickens in a chicken coop and it was amazing, like something that had been painted by Europeans during the Renaissance.”
Miller phoned Howe and she told him that after the Duck Stamp triumph, she stopped looking at the works of other sporting artists and began intensively studying the old European masters. He followed suit.
Miller also credits a research safari he took to Tanzania and Kenya in 1998 with good friends and fellow Minnesotans Brian Jarvi and Daniel Smith. It started his exploration of African subject matter and helped usher forth the shift in thinking. “Brian and Dan, whom I profoundly respect, have the same goals in mind as I do, to make paintings that stand up as great art, not solely because of the subject matter between the frame,” he says.
He returned to the SCI Convention in 2015 after taking a long sabbatical from the show. His absence coincided with a long transition from painting subjects more literally to interpreting them more impressionistically.
“SCI is a setting where, as an artist, you can find real grounding,” Miller says. “I think the people who come to the show and know art are looking for exceptional pieces to hang on their walls and maybe pass down to their kids. I don’t want to let them down.”–Todd Wilkinson