a magazine for the next generation of stamp collectors


Duck Stamp Hero (Full Interview with Kira Sabin)

By Susanna Mills

*Published Winter 2024

In July 2021, Minnesotan Kira Sabin uploaded a 52-second video to TikTok explaining the Federal Duck Stamp Contest and their plan to submit a painting of a Ross’s goose. Two million people saw it, and Kira gained 40,000 followers in 24 hours. Today, Kira (they/she) has an audience of nearly 290,000, mainly Gen Z and millennials who have never collected a stamp in their lives but excitedly cheer Kira on from around the world and buy their duck merch. Why and how has Kira Sabin become the de facto face of the Duck Stamp world?

I started following Kira in July 2021, back when their videos first went viral. Since then, I’ve seen Kira act as an ambassador of this niche subject to the rest of the world, explaining the rules of the competition, the history of Duck Stamps, and the environmentalist goals funded by the program. In 2022, I cheered Kira on from the comments of the competition livestream, as their mottled duck, lovingly named Bucket, received 3 out of 5 votes (or Ins) in the first round of judging. In 2023, I mourned as Kira’s painting only received 1 of 5 votes and didn’t advance to the next round.

So as a fan, I was so happy to sit down with Kira in December, along with digital editor Nora Bryson, to discuss their meteoric rise to niche TikTok fame via the Federal Duck Stamp Contest.

@kirasabin

let me geek out for a minute (:🦆 #artist million dollar duck

♬ A Moment Apart – ODESZA
Kira’s first viral video, 2021.

So the biggest question we have is why ducks?

It’s funny, because my little sister actually was the duck person. Her room was themed ducks. She had a bunch of stuffed animal ducks. And I kind of feel bad because I took that over and people give me ducks now. But my family has always loved ducks, and I like that they’re an animal that I can see – well, not every day, but more often. I don’t think I specifically loved ducks until I did the Duck Stamp competition, and then I got to learn more about them and all the different species. I really just love animals. But this competition was so specific that I fell in love with it and fell in love with ducks.

How did you come to the Duck Stamp competition if you weren’t already a huge duck fan?

I wasn’t into hunting at all and my family tried to get me to do it for a long time, but then my grandpa told me there was an artist competition for the stamps. I’d seen the stamps before, but I assumed then that maybe the Fish & Wildlife Service commissioned someone to design them, and I didn’t think that was ever a possibility to try for it. But in 2019, he told me that it’s a competition, and it opened a whole new world.

What was the idea behind documenting your process on TikTok?

I joined, like most people did, during COVID. As an artist you have to be a self-promoting person constantly, which I hated – I’m super introverted in person. But I love video editing, and on the internet, I’m fine with being perceived. So that felt like a natural world for me.

I was also in art college at the time and I was so shocked that no one knew about the Duck Stamp competition there. I was thinking, “Why does no one know about this?” I realized it’s very niche. It’s dorky, but also super prestigious. So as I was making videos, I thought it was the perfect choice to say, “Hey, did you know there’s this whole dorky world out here and I think you guys would like it?” And they did. So I was thrilled.

You obviously had a great reaction online. Did you get any kind of reaction from the Duck Stamp community?

I did. It was weird because it’s not my demographic at all. I didn’t get to go to the actual competitions in person and meet any of the people for the first four years I was entering because they were really far away and then it was COVID. So I felt on the outside of that world for a long time. I didn’t make friends really until last year.

I’ve been following you since Bucket, your entry in 2022. When we were watching the live stream of the competition when Bucket was being judged, I was watching all the comments fly by as your entry was coming up and it was just so obvious that that kind of excitement had never happened before. Have you heard that the surge might be related to your entry?

Yeah, I’ve heard a few references toward it. I heard discussions like, “There were more younger people entering this year, it was the liveliest crowd in person and there were more younger people there.” The room was pretty full when we went.

Has anyone ever reached out to you directly and said, “I entered the Duck Stamp contest because of you?”

Lots of people, and lots of people say that they’re going to try in future years too. It’s a bit intimidating, which I understand. But they’re ramping up to it.

You went viral two years ago now. What is the most intense, the coolest thing, the wildest thing that’s happened to you since?

My coolest moment was that I got to meet two of the Hautman brothers at the competition. Bob emailed me when I was painting Bucket in 2022, just a sentence, “Good job raising awareness,” or something like that. And I was like, “Oh my God. I can’t believe he has my email. And he emailed me.” And then I got to meet him and Joe at the competition, and took a dorky picture with them… It’s probably one of the coolest moments of my life, just because I love them, they were so nice, incredibly talented, super humble. They remind me of my family.

What was it like having your twin sister Kess enter the competition with you this year?

It was great. She’s living with me and my wife right now, so it seemed perfect. They’re both artists and neither of them really wanted to enter, I think because they thought it was my thing, and they just have very different styles of art. But I said, “Kess, you should enter.” And she kind of laughed at me and then said “Okay, fine.”

She did the harlequin duck. If you like a type of duck, your depiction is much more convincing. But we’re both procrastinators. We stressed together and we helped each other with the designs. And her approach made me think of things with mine that I wanted to change. And having another set of eyes that knows how to look at art is extremely beneficial. I really had a fun time and she wants to do it again.

You said your wife [Greyley Sabin] is also an artist. Do you think she’ll enter as well?

She loves wood ducks, and wood ducks are on the probable species for next year – or the year after that, because they give it out in advance. So maybe when wood ducks are eligible, she’ll do a painting.

What was it like attending the competition in person for the first time?

I didn’t get to go to the actual competitions in person and meet any of the people for the first four years I was entering, either because they were really far away or because of COVID. So I felt on the outside of that world for a long time. Going in person [in 2023] and meeting everyone, it finally felt like, “Oh, this is the community that really likes it.”

There’s a bit of controversy with me doing this whole thing, posting on social media. Technically it’s supposed to be an anonymous competition, so I thought there might be some people who don’t like that I share my submission beforehand online. I was worried that it would be weird in some way, but everyone was super nice. And I’m pretty certain not a single one of the judges knew who I was or anything so it was totally fine, and I only got one IN anyway. So I’m not really worried about that. I think sharing my process online is definitely worth it if it gets more people interested.

Were there any takeaways from this year’s competition that you’re going to take into next year? Like feedback or just things that you noticed yourself?

Yeah. I was so very humbled. When I first started entering, I thought “I’m pretty good. I think I could do well at least.” I was just so very wrong. It’s a certain style that they like. I paint in a way that’s not super smooth. With the painting being so small, then reduced to stamp size, it has to be readable and have no errors. Every year I’m like, “Oh, I’m not as good as the others.” Which is fine, because then I have something to improve on.

In person, the submissions are the most incredible paintings I’ve ever seen. So I just feel like I’m a lot more behind than I ever thought I was, which is exciting to me. Usually that will make people say, “I might as well just give up. I’m not going to ever win or anything.” And I feel like I might not ever win, but I have some new ideas moving forward after having seen them in person.

On your TikTok, you mentioned that you’re tackling the spectacled eider next year. What got you interested in that duck in particular?

I just really like how weird he looks – it looks like he’s wearing goggles or something. It’s a cool bird. People make fun of me that I like white animals. And I do, they’re fun to paint if they’re white. Now I’m working on trying to go see them. They’re hard to see in the wild and that’s stressing me out a bit.

They’re in Alaska, right? So would you head up there?

I would maybe go to Alaska. That feels pretty intimidating because even when you’re there, they’re kind of hard to find. There are some aviaries that have them, and I’d be guaranteed to see them.

You were talking about the art style that’s kind of required for the Duck Stamp competition, essentially hyperrealism, which isn’t necessarily your typical style. Do you enjoy that challenge of shifting your style? Does that affect the rest of your work?

I’ve always enjoyed hyperrealism. I’ve loved trying to emulate hyperrealism, but I still feel like every time I try, I can’t get away from how I just normally paint.

Each year I’m going to try something slightly different. Most of the winners use acrylics. I actually learned to paint using acrylics, but when I went to college I learned to do oil instead. Now I’m feeling like maybe I should try acrylics again, start earlier and do a slower painting. It really is a challenge. And I think each year I’m getting better, but it’s also hard to tell, especially when you do worse the following year in the judging.

You recently talked about the Sea Duck conference stamp competition on your TikTok. It seems like they’ve got a much more relaxed vibe. Is that something that you’d like to see the Federal Duck Stamp Contest incorporate, or do you like that there are different competitions with different atmospheres?

I kind of like that there are different competitions. Some of my followers are sad that the federal program only values hyperrealism, but I think that’s what the competition was meant for – identifying duck species and being accurate.

I’m very excited about the Sea Duck Conference and want people to try it. I wish there were even more stamp competitions in different categories. Because my viewers are also so confused that the Duck Stamp is not a postage stamp. I’ll say, “I’m so sorry, you will not see this on your mail. This is for hunters.” So I want more stamp contests for different things.

@kirasabin

Replying to @cuteusername #greenscreen this is why i normally use a mic #duckstamp

♬ Stories 2 – Danilo Stankovic
Why realism?

You do a lot of videos that offer people advice and answer questions about the Duck Stamp contest. Is that because you want to make the contest more accessible or just because people find it entertaining and interesting?

I want it to be more accessible. No one wants to read over all of the documents about how to enter – and the rules are so specific because it’s the only government-judged competition. You have to follow the rules, or they literally won’t even show your entry. So I want to make it more accessible.

How do you decide what goes on TikTok and what stays for you? Do you ever wonder if you should do less? Do more?

Yeah, it’s kind of odd. I like to be genuine and honest at the core. So I feel like mostly I’m open about any of it, and I’m fine with that. I guess I wonder if that’s smart or not, but it doesn’t really worry me. I have so many ideas and I just need more time for all of them, so they will slowly start coming out and I will probably document most of them.

I would guess that when you think about yourself, TikToker is not the first thing that comes to mind.

Yeah. That’s been weird for sure. I don’t like telling people, even though some people think it’s so cool. Especially when I’m doing interviews with other Duck Stamp artists and stuff, I’m like, “I don’t really feel like your audience is gonna understand what I’m doing at all.” And then I have to say, “Find me on this app that you probably don’t have.” But I’m going to own it too, obviously, because that is what I do. But really it’s just because I love video editing. So maybe I’ll do YouTube too at some point. I want to make a long form video on everything I know about how to enter the Duck Stamp competition to make it more accessible. I did a short version of that, it was like eight minutes long. But I can make a better one now and tell people how to mat your art and what tools you need and all of that.

I don’t love that I’m the duck person necessarily, because I don’t think I’ve ever been that set in stone with anything. I love movies. I love screenwriting. I love so many other things. I wrote a book when I was 18. And I guess I want to do more of that and maybe I’ll do that on YouTube. If I ever post about [that kind of stuff] on my TikTok, it doesn’t do as well. But that’s also what I love. It’s just a weird app.

When you’re painting, you have a favorite medium or do you just bounce all around?

I did oil paints, but now I paint in my house and it’s not well ventilated and I care about my health and my cat and my wife. So I got water mixable oil paints, and those are my favorite. And I also love oil pastels. I love the oil. I hate soft pastels.

I did pet portraits for a long time to make most of my money, and I did them in oil pastels. So I got really comfortable with those and I love those. Doing a duck in oil pastels would be really fun. And it would not at all be what the judges are looking for, but maybe I’ll try that sometime.

Have you ever gotten any kind of feedback from “general” stamp people or just Duck Stamp people? And do you collect stamps yourself?

You are the first stamp people to reach out, so that was exciting to me.

I feel like if I had gotten into stamp collecting when I was young, I’d be super into it. I got a Duck Stamp when I first realized they existed and now I’m going back and trying to buy my favorite ones. I like them in general, so I would certainly be interested in getting more involved with stamps and stamp collecting.

I wanted to ask about Raspberry Toodle and your Creative Collective that you run with your family, which is such a fun take on a family business. Is that more aligned with how you see yourself as a creative artist, as collaborating with people?

I don’t really view myself as a collaborator in the sense of I make stuff with other people because I’m not very good at that. Even with my twin sister, we were horrible at making art together, but I love supporting other people. And if I’m going to do well, whatever that means, I want my family to do well and I want the things that I care about to do well. I love making a specific print or a shirt or something that’s also a donation piece so I can raise some money to donate.

So I thought since my family are all artists, I want a website that has all of our work on it, because it doesn’t really need to be separate, even though we have very different styles. And I wanted other people to see their work as well, and I was getting the most traffic, so I thought, why not? And it’s allowed me to work with my younger sister [Sophie] too, who doesn’t really view herself as an artist, even though I think she has a lot of talent in different departments that she doesn’t really realize. So in that sense, I do really like working with people, uplifting people, and just giving more people opportunities. So Raspberry Toodle – my wife named it. And we just stuck with that.

Do you have any plans for your art for the future? Or do you just go where the wind takes you?

I have a note in my phone where I write down ideas for art. But it’s more like where the wind blows. It’s funny, some of my family don’t fully understand the Duck Stamp thing. They’re like, “Oh, how’d you do?” Or they thought maybe I won. I was like, “No, I didn’t win.” And they’re like, “Are you gonna do it next year?” I was like, “Yes, Grandma. I will be doing it every year.” So I know I’ll do that forever, which is just something I look forward to every year.

If people want to check out your art, your family’s art, where can they find you? Where can they buy merch from you, all that good stuff?

Well, everything that you can buy from me and my family is on Raspberry Toodle, which you can find at raspberrytoodle.com or via any of my social media handles. On Instagram, I’m kirasabin.art. On TikTok, I’m KiraSabin. And I have a regular website too, kirasabinart.com.