Artist Studio | Stephen C. LeBlanc

Interview by Bonnie Gangelhoff, Photos by Marc Piscotty

Describe your studio.
My studio is 1,800 square feet. I have an office and a gallery in one area, and then a work area. I have artifacts collected from around the world in both places, including carved whale vertebrae from Alaska, pottery shards from Israel, and pieces of a walrus tusk given to me by the governor of Tyumen City in Russia.

Stephen LeBlanc sculpting in his studio

Did you always want to be a sculptor? No. I studied biology in college and was a mortgage banker after I graduated. But as a boy I was always fooling around with taxidermy, taking correspondence courses on how to skin a bird or a squirrel. I lived on the outskirts of a Kansas town with fields and valleys, and I always had a tremendous fascination with animals. I begged my parents to go to the zoo. The most influential thing for my future career happened when I was nine years old and my father took me to the St. Louis Zoo to see a gorilla that had died and been mounted. The mount was next to the office of Marlin Perkins [the zoo’s curator and a prominent naturalist who died in 1986]. He came out of his office as I was standing there. I told him that I loved animals, and that someday I was going to be just like him.

Marlin Perkins is best known for hosting Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom on television. Did you aspire to a TV show back then? I just wanted to be around animals. But today I do host a TV series, Browning Expeditions, that starts up again in July on Saturday mornings on ESPN2. I take celebrities on different adventures around the world—Africa, New Zealand, and Argentina. They are hunting trips. During the show you see me observing the animals and talking about their nuances with interesting facts, like the fact that pronghorn antelope have gall bladders but not dewclaws, or that turkeys have 157 bones—things most people don’t know. In every show they have me sculpting an animal I have harvested.

How many times have you been to Africa? I’ve been three times for the show and four times on my own. On my own trips, I hunt animals like impalas and warthogs as well as observe animals. On the television trips, I also observe and hunt while the camera follows me.

A few of his sculptures

How did you find your way to a career in sculpting? A friend and I won a best of show award at a national taxidermy competition in Denver. Afterwards I was offered a job at the Denver Museum of Natural History, and eventually I met some Texans who were opening up Mongolia to hunting. One of them commissioned me to mount a sheep he was bringing back. He also eventually asked me if I could do some sculpture for him. I told him that I didn’t know how. He said, “It would be in your best interest to figure it out.” That was 1978, and I began studying at a foundry right away. My first piece was a life-size deer for the entryway of his home.

What inspires your work? The bible. I am a very religious person. I also like the silence in nature. Being out in the field inspires me. I understand that many artists don’t have the funds to go to Africa every year. But when a lion is lying around in a zoo, I’m sorry, that’s not what lions look like in the wild. People that really know animals always say to me, “You’ve been there, haven’t you.”

What are you looking for as an artist on hunting trips?
When I’m out in the field, I am looking for a millisecond that is interesting, and I take a picture of the animal in my mind. Then I go back home and try to capture it. I am always observing and trying to understand the way they operate. Becoming a better hunter brings you closer to the animals and makes you a better sculptor. I’ve seen ticks crawl along the trunk of an elephant. I like being up close.

You observe animals, but you also kill them. Is that difficult? There’s always a bit of remorse, but it depends on understanding that hunting animals is a renewable resource. Harvesting a renewable resource is for the betterment of society overall. People have no idea how destructive an elephant can be. In Zimbabwe they have a huge elephant problem, and they need to take out 3,000 elephants in just one part of the country. A population can only sustain certain numbers. Disney has done a great disservice by portraying animals as just like us. Kids grow up believing things like Bambi talking to her mom. A deer does not know it’s a deer. Animals don’t have cognizant reasoning.

You collect animal bones. How does that help you in your work?
I have the bones of about 80 to 100 animals. I might measure the bones of a mule deer. If can measure the ankle bone to the knee bone at 21 inches, I can get the math right for a piece. And even if I have my own style of sculpting, the piece will look right. Get the math right, and the rest is interpretation.

A few of his trophies or mounts from his hunting adventures

How many trophies or mounts do you own? I have about 138, including a sable and a 10-foot alligator. I also have what are called the “big five” in Africa—dangerous game that includes the  Cape buffalo, leopard, African lion, rhinoceros, and elephant. If you want to kill an African lion, depending on the country, it’s $35,000 to $70,000. The money goes to the government. People get upset [about hunting], but what they don’t understand is that all this money goes back into the management of game in these countries. I have seen first-hand how that money also goes back into the villages for creating water systems and providing building materials for homes and food for people.

Any artists from the past inspire you? Michelangelo. He was the largest employer in Venice. Art is a business.

Do you play music while you work?
Everything from classical to old country western people like Marty Robbins. I am also a disco guy and may play the Bee Gees.

What impresses you about other artists’ works? Attention to detail. It doesn’t mean that they have to be highly detailed pieces, just anatomically correct.

What is your pet peeve? People on cell phones.

What is the best advice you have ever received? Always walk in the light of the plan the Lord has for you.

Describe yourself in one word.

If your studio was on fire, what one thing would you save?
A folder that has my daughter Renee’s personal thoughts on her life struggles coupled with Christian hymns. And I would take my other daughter Michelle’s Christian poems.

People would be surprised to learn that….
I kicked the first field goal at Invesco Field on July 3, 2001. I’m good friends with the Broncos’ Jason Elam, and he asked me to go down and hold the ball for him. When we got there, he told me he wanted me to kick the first goal. I missed it. About 1,500 hundred workers were installing the seats in the new stadium at the time, and they started booing me. I kicked again and got the goal on the second try. So you might say I missed the first field goal at Invesco and also made the first field goal at Invesco Field.

Anything else people would be surprised to learn? I want to be on the television show Survivor. I’m submitting a tape for the next season. If I get on, I will either win or I will probably be kicked off right away because I’m too bossy.

What’s the one place people will never find you?
Sitting around complaining about the economy and that there’s no business out there. If you want it to happen, you make it happen.

Evergreen Fine Art, Evergreen, CO; Cogswell Gallery, Vail, CO; Buffalo Mountain Gallery, Frisco, CO;  Squash Blossom Gallery, Colorado Springs, CO;
NatureWorks Art Show & Sale, Tulsa, OK, March 5-6.

Featured in “My World” in March 2011.