Thanks to one artist on TikTok, thousands of people are now invested in a prestigious art competition you've probably never heard of.
Kira Fennell, 22, is preparing her third entry for the annual Federal Duck Stamp Contest put on by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The event sees dozens of painters compete to create each year's duck stamp, which can be bought by anyone to send mail and must be used to apply for a migratory bird hunting license.
It's a very big deal for wildlife artists — but unless you're a painter or a hunter, you might not have known about the competition. That is, until Fennell started documenting the process on TikTok.
"It's kind of the American Idol equivalent to wildlife art competition," Fennell, who uses she/they pronouns, told BuzzFeed News. "Even though there's no direct prize. It's just super dorky, super prestigious."
Fennell's first TikTok, in which they explained how the competition works, now has 2.5 million views.
She's also documenting her entry for 2021, their third time entering the contest. They were voted out in the first round in years prior, but she does hold the distinction of being last year's youngest entrant.
Contestants pick from five species to paint, and Fennell chose the Ross’s goose. They said the judges look for realism as well as something that would work well on a small stamp.
"You kind of just have to make everything perfect to read at a tiny scale," they said.
And the competition is fierce. There's a trio of brothers in Minnesota, where Fennell also lives, who have won a collective total of 13 years.
Winners don't receive a prize, but the contest has been called the "Million-Dollar Duck" because collectors will buy prints of the work, which helps boost the artist's career.
"People used to, and probably still do, make over $1 million from just those sales," they said.
Documenting her work on TikTok means a bunch of strangers are now rooting for Fennell to win. She said people who help run the contest have also reached out to thank her for spreading awareness. Money from stamp sales helps fund wildlife conservation in the US.
It's now crunch time for Fennell. She's been working on it for over two weeks, putting in hours upon hours each day. The artwork must be postmarked by Aug. 15 to be eligible — so they still have a few long days ahead. Fennell estimates they will put a total of 80 hours into the painting.
"People are so nice, and I like that so many more people are gonna watch this year," Fennell said. And as a full-time artist, the exposure has been a big plus.
"I did not expect so much support. People have bought lots of things from my shop. So financially, that has been amazing."
Judging will take place on Sept. 24 and 25 over three rounds — but with so many people cheering them on, Fennell said this year already feels like a win.