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Les Kouba Biographical Information

Leslie C. Kouba, dean of Minnesota's wildlife artists, is a self-made man who describes himself as 52 percent businessman and 48 percent artist. "I've made my way in this world by following three principles: First, pick the thing you like to do best; then, learn everything you can about it; and finally, be willing to work harder than anyone else in that field. Kouba's secret to success: work. It's that simple."
 Les Kouba is a celebrity who loves the public. If you happen by the American Wildlife Galleries in the Plymouth Building on Sixth Street in downtown Minneapolis, there is a good chance you will meet him. He's the guy who wears confidence like a second set of clothes. His gray hair is slicked straight back off the forehead. His trifocal glasses perch on his nose above a mustache waxed to a razor sharp point. His bolo tie is looped around his shirt collar and his customary plaid sports jacket hangs on a rack in the corner. His blue eyes flash and sparkle as he spins yarns and dispenses bits and pieces of homespun wisdom to anyone within earshot. At 71, Kouba enjoys life.
 Comfortably sitting in his favorite chair, Kouba leans back and with a twinkle in his eye, he says: "You know, this rooster was hatched during a big snow storm. I arrived on February 3, 1917, during a whale of a blizzard at Hutchinson, a small picturesque town in west central Minnesota. I was born on a farm about two miles east of town. My parents, Anthony and Sophie Kouba, were first generation Americans. Their parents had emigrated to this country from Prague, Czechoslovakia.
 "I was the middle child with a brother on each side of me. My parents owned their own small dairy operation. Those were the days," says Kouba, " when you had a handful of chickens, a patch of dirt for a vegetable garden, a few pigs and a dozen milk cows. You tried to scratch out a living any way you could. My Grandpa Philipi, my mother's father, had 120 colonies of bees, and, as you well know," says Kouba with a hearty laugh, "that's a pretty sweet business selling that honey stuff."
 The farm not only provided the Kouba family with a means to earn a living, but it also served as a never-ending playground for three active boys. Les, with brothers Harry and Ernie in tow, often roamed the surrounding fields and woods absorbing the lessons of nature as they went along.
 Kouba's favorite companion on these outdoor adventures was his dog, Bobby. "He was the best friend I had when I was growing up. He was just a mutt, nothing fancy, but I loved him all the same," says Kouba. "I remember one time when he seemed to have disappeared. I didn't think much of it at first, but after three days I figured he was a goner. I was completely heartbroken. It was Thanksgiving Day and I took a walk out in the plowed field to hunt jackrabbits. As I looked around for rabbits, I spotted something hanging from the top of the fence. It was Bobby. Somehow, when he was out chasing jackrabbits, he got tangled up in the woven wire fence and couldn't free himself. He was in pretty rough shape when I found him. I carried him home and we nursed him back to health. We put Watkins' Carbolic Salve, the ointment in the tin, on his damaged leg-that brown stuff could cure anything. He ended up having three good legs instead of four, but it never seemed to bother him chasing after those jackrabbits. We had a lot to be thankful for that Thanksgiving.
 "My father," continues Kouba, "contributed to my early appreciation of nature. He taught me a lot of the little tricks in hunting, trapping, and later, fishing. He instilled in me at an early age, the sheer enjoyment of being outdoors. Back when I was a kid, it was really something to go hunting. Those were the days when the ducks and geese were so plentiful that the sky turned black when the flocks passed by overhead. These experiences were so exciting to me that I started to portray these happenings on bits of paper that I always carried with me. Consequently, I drew my impressions of birds, game animals, big game and fish-everything across the board. Because I actually hunted, I developed an early understanding of all the background skills necessary to be successful at my future career as a wildlife artist."
 Kouba decided early in life that farming wasn't for him. "I knew I could draw when I was about 8 years old. I think I made up my mind about then that I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. In fact," says Kouba, "many of the buildings on the farm still show traces of my early enthusiastic attempts at painting. And I was quite convinced I was on the right track when I sold my first painting at age 11 to a prosperous German farmer who lived near Hutchinson.
 "That first painting was of a deer at the water's edge with some pine trees in the background," remembers Kouba. "It was something that I had created completely myself. I had hardly any materials-just junk-whatever I was able to pick up on the farm. I used a two-foot wide piece of upson board for my canvas. At that time, upson board was used for attic insulation. I did it in oil paints, and 'oil' in those days meant anything that wasn't watercolor. I used just about any kind of pigment I could lay my hands on-house paint, implement paint, and enamels-you name it.
 "I sold that painting for eight dollars, a king's ransom in those days," says Kouba. "It doesn't seem like much by today's standards, but keep in mind that was in 1928, 'when a dime was as big as a wagon wheel.' To put it into perspective, my father's total income from his dairy business was $22 for the month."
 That early sale went a long way in convincing Kouba's parents that his artistic skills were worth developing. Art talent, however, was nothing new to Kouba's father, Tony. He had the gift to draw and his father-in-law, Grandpa Philipi, was quite a penman "beautiful Spencerian script and calligraphy. He was also a master cabinet maker and carpenter," remembers Kouba.
 "My brother Ernie was a real good artist, too. I asked him once why he hadn't stayed with it. He said: 'I'll tell you why. I'd do a painting and then I'd look at yours and I figured, forget it. I'd never catch up with that dude."'
 Delores Saar, a childhood friend of Kouba's, remembers visiting one day and being greeted with a bed sheet stretched across the wall. "Les and his brother Harry were always into one thing or another," says Saar. "It seems on this occasion, the Kouba brothers had invented a type of movie projector. Les drew pictures of an airplane in different positions on a piece of glass. The strip of glass was inserted into the 'projector,' a device made from a flashlight and a handful of other odds-and-ends. By moving the glass strip, the image of the airplane was projected onto the 'screen' giving the illusion that the airplane was moving across the wall. It was really something."
 Kouba's parents supported Les's interest in art by enrolling him at age 14 in a correspondence course sponsored by the Federal Schools in Minneapolis.
 "The name has been changed since I went there," says Kouba. "It's now known as Art Instruction, the 'Draw-Me' school. It offers all the basics but it doesn't overly influence technique. You don't end up painting like your instructor. I really learned a lot from that school. I will always be thankful that I had the opportunity to take the course.

"Many artists I've found today," says Kouba, "could benefit from some of those early lessons."
 "Frankly," he adds, "this correspondence course was a wonderful opportunity for me. I could fit it in with my farm chores and after school sports. I could have my training and not be nailed down to a certain schedule. Right to this day, at age 71, I like that kind of flexibility."

This information was taken from Kouba's book, The Legacy of Les C. Kouba, p 11-12.


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