David Hagerbaumer

Game birds on the wing, in a way we’ll never see again.

[by Brooke Chilvers]

THE MOST SENIOR OF OUR FAVORITE sporting artists are inevitably slipping away, taking with them their deeply personal interpretation of North American game in its native environments. Most of these artists’ lifestyles fueled their vision to an extent that no outdoorsman painter could repeat today. What happens when those blessed with extended lifespans, such as waterfowl artist Harry Adamson (born 1916)—a self-confessed non-hunter who nevertheless studied 116 species of ducks and geese in the field—are gone? We’re likely condemned to some form of digitally spawned wildlife art in inadvertent tribute to authentic masters, one of them being David Hagerbaumer, who passed away last year.

Hagerbaumer was born in 1921 and grew up during the Great Depression on his father’s 40-acre farm 10 miles from both Quincy, Illinois, and Hannibal, Missouri. A Huck Finn of a boy, he ventured afield with rod and shotgun in a manner now extinct, exploring the sloughs, creeks, and cottonwood forests of this wild stretch of the Mississippi River.

Hunting with his father, uncles, and grandfather (who carved mallard and pintail decoys from solid cedar), he shot his first quarry, a mallard drake, by age eight. By 1932 he was caring for his father’s hunting shack on the banks of a major Mississippi chute, hunting over live English call ducks, and spent the next decade fishing, trapping, and shotgunning waterfowl, putting food on the family table. In the late 1930s he, too, took up the tools of the decoy carver.

The day after Christmas 1942, Hagerbaumer enlisted and spent four years on active duty in the Pacific, much of it on Midway Island. After being discharged in 1946, he and his cousin started Custom-Bilt Decoys in San Diego. Working with high-density balsa, redwood, or red cedar, they turned out pintails, mallards, canvasbacks, a few wigeon, brant, and Canada geese at $3 apiece. Hagerbaumer expert and author John Orrelle notes that all decoys were rubber-stamped with the company logo, and that the keels were of the same style and weighted. While his cousin lathed the bodies, Hagerbaumer carved the heads, and together they turned out 18 to 20 dozen decoys a week. When the shop burned down a year later, however, they simply went out of business. (Starting around 1990, Hagerbaumer relaunched his line of decoys, now made from high-density cork.)

Subsequently, he worked as a staff artist and assistant ornithologist/taxidermist at the Carson City Museum, and studied for a spell at San Diego State, but never graduated. In 1951, Hagerbaumer was recalled to service in the Korean War, where the 30-year-old’s talents were used to draw maps and propaganda posters. Later, he was curator of ornithology at Nevada State Museum, then staff artist for the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, ultimately evolving into a full-time artist.

Always pursuing game birds with a shotgun or camera, always sketching from life their form and substance in every possible attitude and making studies from motion pictures of bird flight patterns, Hagerbaumer churned out watercolors at a Germanic rhythm. He was equally confident with the diamond-point tool used to incise copperplates for his soft-edged drypoints and numerous etchings.

On weekends he sold his artwork in San Diego’s Balboa Park, until Ralph Terrill, founder of the New York gallery Crossroads of Sport, took him on. Their 1956 catalogue, featuring four Hagerbaumer watercolors with accompanying limited-edition prints by Frost & Reed of England, launched his national career. These sold out, as did the following year’s waterfowl series and so on for decades, until the collectibles industry drowned itself in print runs of up to 2,000. They also offered his hand-painted ceramics of quail, woodcock, chukar, green-winged teal, grouse, snipe, and mourning dove, which are now extremely rare.

With an endless and ongoing supply of mental images to draw upon, Hagerbaumer estimated he’d produced 2,500 to 3,500 works, generating one new piece a day for long stretches. This was achievable because of his preference for fast-drying watercolors over slow, smelly oil paints. In fact, his few oils are clumsy and ungifted.