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It was said that Les Kouba was born in a winter storm, on a farm outside of Hutchinson, Minnesota on February 3, 1917.

The world didn't have any idea what would be in store for this adventurous young boy wandering over the fields and looking at the sky to the sounds of migrating Canada geese in the spring and fall. His father taught him many of the little tricks in hunting, trapping and fishing. He learned to appreciate the joys of being in the outdoors early in life.

At a very early age Les Kouba started to draw. Probably on any thing he could find. These were the days when the countryside and the sky were filled with ducks, geese, fish, deer and other wildlife. It's said at the age of 8 Les Kouba knew he wanted to be an artist. At the age of 11, he sold his first painting to a wealthy German farmer for $8.00. Soon after that he was thinking of being an artist. 

At age 14 he was enrolled in the Federal Schools, a correspondence school in Minneapolis, MN, where he developed a friendship with his instructors, learning the valuable lessons that life had to impress upon him. It's here that he met an instructor by the name of Walter J. Wilwerding, who would become a very large influence on his future art. You must learn how to draw before you start to paint, he told Les. 

Having left formal schooling early, Les was about to take his life on the road to draw and paint. At age 16 his journey began. It consisted of painting trucks, signs, wall murals and anything that required paint, a brush and a steady hand. He was on the road exploring the sites to see and earning a living. 

Some of his very best customers were individual Coca Cola bottlers where painted the logo on their trucks. He also painted the windows of drug stores that sold the the Coca Cola products. Word of mouth from one drug store owner to the next was the way he earned his way. After traveling over 39 of the 48 states, it was time to come home and settle down. 

After returning home, Les met and married Orial, from Gibbon Minnesota, the woman who became his life partner and friend. As they settled into home life, Les was to begin the notoriety that he would learn to enjoy as the sportsmen of, not only Minnesota, but the world. 

A job at Onan Corporation was the starting point in his employment in commercial art. Eventually Onan talked him into starting his own art business, Kouba Advertising Art. Later, Kouba's inventions, the Art-O-Graph projector and the Map-O-Graph projector, used to enlarge pictures and maps, lead to his success outside the art world. Both inventions have been sold around the world. In 1966 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) ordered one of each. It was assumed the projectors were being used in the preparation of lunar maps. 

In keeping with Kouba's love of hunting he patented a process for folding a paper goose decoy. This happened back in 1946.

Clare Fry, art director of Brown & Bigelow, a major calendar firm in the United states, saw some of Kouba's paintings at the Zesbaugh's Gallery. Hoping to have Brown & Bigelow use his art he did a trial painting called "Daybreak on the Marshes." Fry and Brown & Biglow, St. Paul, Minnesota, loved the painting. They bought it for $600 and helped to launch Les C. Kouba's career as a wildlife artist.. 

He not only did calendar prints but magazine covers, for Sports Afield in the years October 1950, June 1963, September 1971, November 1967 and as 2 others. For a total of 6 Sports Afield covers. The 1950 cover he painted was a flock of bluebills in flight during a heavy snowstorm. Kouba loved doing this. His dream had been to do cover art for magazines. This was just the beginning. He also did a number of illustrations for the Minneapolis Star Tribune Picture Magazine. One example from the Picture Magazine is p. 13-14 from September 1968. (Used with permission of Star Tribune, Minneapolis, MN. )

Les Kouba illustration from the Minneapolis Star Tribune Picture Magazine, 1968, p. 13-14.

Later to his surprise he noticed that people were fascinated with the idea of an artist painting in front of a group. So he crisscrossed Minnesota putting on painting demonstrations for places and people like First Bank system, Northwestern National bank, the Elks, the Kiwanis and any other group that had an interest in seeing him paint. His willingness to do this was probably a very large factor in the success he enjoyed. 

His work at Advertising Art included Red Owl, Ole Dutch potato chips, Watkins, Schmidt Beer, Cola Cola, and the list goes on. He did a series of wildlife paintings for the Royal Stationery Company of Minneapolis. The put the scenes on their stationary but also created prints of his paintings. This was a transition point for his work from commercial art to fine art.

Other successes of his work was a print offered by Watkins where Watkins printed 5,000 and had requests for 24,674. He also had a successful art program with Argosy--The complete Man's Magazine. When people subscribed for 16 months they received 4 wildlife prints: "Call of the Wild--Goose," "Spring Fawn," "Pride of the Lillies," and "Southern Beauties." Kouba knew he had a market out there to tap.

On an inspiration, he entered and won the the Federal Duck Stamp in 1958-1959 with Canada Geese, held by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He won again in 1967-68 with Old Squaws ducks. He never entered the competition again.

His wildlife art was getting into the hands of the consuming public. His crowd of friends, included some big names, Bob Hope, Arthur Godfrey and Jimmy Robinson, only to mention a few…

People who personally knew Kouba, attest to the fact that the man was a showman and sometimes more of a businessman than an artist. He needed a mix of both to have success he had.

Les C. Kouba died on Sept 13, 1998. He passed quietly in his sleep in a nursing home. But not before leaving the world richer with all the people that he helped, all the pencil drawings, etchings, book illustrations, art prints, the dollars that he generated for Ducks Unlimited and other good causes. 

Les Kouba painted for some 60 years, sharing his thoughts of a hunting, fishing, wildlife, ducks, geese, nostalgic Americana scenes and more to grace the walls of many homes and businesses. 

I, Arlen Axdahl, was personally influenced by his art for the last 30 years. I've been spreading the word about Les C. Kouba as the "Minnesota Sportsman" and "The Norman Rockwell of Minnesota." Recently I received the photographs of Les Kouba displayed below. Two show him with some of his art while the other photos, in color, showing the artist with his work. They provide a human touch on the artist.

Photo of Les Kouba looking at some of his displayed art at an art show.

Color photo of Les Kouba with insets showing him at work on an art project.

Les Kouba is signing one of his prints in this picture take in his studio.

Les Kouba is painting his famous watercolor, "The Live Log."

Les Kouba sitting by a completed painting of his.

Biography was based on Johnson, Kay. The Legacy of Les C. Kouba. Minnesota: American Wildlife Art Galleries, 1988, p. 9-40.

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