Dave McGary | A Fortuitous Life


By Gussie Fauntleroy

When the golden ring on the merry-go-round of life comes by, some people are just ready to grab it. Dave McGary is one of those people. At key points over the years, opportunities have opened up for McGary—to learn lost-wax casting, apprentice at a foundry in Italy, and delve into American Indian culture. Each time, the artist was more than ready, springing forward with energy, enthusiasm, and a genuine spirit that has drawn both people and opportunities into his life. And the nice thing is, he knows how fortunate he’s been, and he is very grateful.

The material manifestations of McGary’s 30-year sculpture career are impressive. They include 10 commissions for monumental bronzes in 10 years and works in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution, the White House, and the National Statuary Hall in Washington, DC. Other major collections that contain his artworks include the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis, IN; the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, CA; the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, WY; and the Shinnecock Nation Cultural Center & Museum in Southampton, NY.

McGary’s award-winning sculpture is in more than a dozen galleries around the country, including two owned by the artist himself. McGary also has his own foundry in Ruidoso, NM, with a team of artisans he has personally trained. And the 49-year-old sculptor, along with his wife, Molly, and their 11-year-old daughter, divide their time between homes in Paradise Valley near Scottsdale, AZ, and in Sun Valley, ID, where their property is crossed by a premier fly-fishing river and, frequently, by elk, moose, bear, and other wildlife.

Yet it’s probably safe to say that in the grand scheme of things, McGary’s material accomplishments don’t tip the scale of his heart like the enduring friendships he has developed over the decades with the American Indian individuals and families with whom he’s been involved. Or like the depth of understanding and knowledge of Native cultures that these relationships have allowed him to attain—and express through his art.

One of McGary’s earliest lessons in life was learning about hard work. Growing up the youngest of four children on his father’s Wyoming ranch, he had daily duties involving raising hay and caring for cattle. But when he wasn’t busy with chores, he drew, welded, and made things from clay. “When you’re too young to drive and you live 15 miles from town, you’re very creative with your spare time,” the artist points out in his warm, good-natured manner.

Athletically gifted, young McGary also played football, basketball, and baseball, and this, oddly enough, helped lead to what he describes as “the art light flickering on.” In seventh grade in Cody, WY, all students were given a half-year of music and a half-year of art. McGary stumbled through sessions playing the recorder, but when he got to the art semester, things “really clicked.” His art teacher was also the junior high football coach, whom McGary knew and liked. “Mr. Larsen was an incredible teacher who inspired kids, and he showed me other ways of expending my creative energy,” he recalls. A class in lost-wax casting was focused on making jewelry, but McGary took it in another direction. “I became obsessed with the lost-wax process. I would go in after hours and make things like bighorn sheep heads and little sports figures,” he recounts.

Then a very big door opened up. A Casper, WY-based foundation was concerned about losing the art of bronze casting in the United States. To help spark a revival, the foundation wanted to send four artists or art students to Italy for a year of intensive study with master bronze artisans at a foundry renowned for its craft. “Word got out that there was this kid in Cody doing this stuff,” McGary says. He was chosen to go. The only problem was that he was just 15, not old enough to quit school. He had to wait a year.

It was a year well spent. Having moved with his mother to Durango, CO, after his parents divorced, McGary built a makeshift backyard foundry and kept experimenting with bronze. He worked three jobs that summer to earn money for materials to create what at the time was his largest-ever piece. It was a 24-inch rifle-toting cowboy on horseback, titled TAKING LAW IN HAND. He had it cast at Shidoni Foundry near Santa Fe and sold it, earning money for his trip.

McGary’s time in Italy stretched from one year to two, and it was all he could have hoped for and more. Working side by side with ninth-generation artisans in bronze casting, he was privy to a level of knowledge he could not have gained any other way. “I was an unformed ball of clay dropped into Italy—and the rest is history,” he laughs. “I absorbed it all. I’m so lucky. It enabled me to do the intricate work I do now.” McGary’s training in Italy, which also included the study of anatomy, explains the “There Are No Limits” signs on his studio walls. Where many bronze workers would declare a piece too thin or otherwise too difficult to cast, McGary gained the skills and confidence to say, “It can be done.”

But technical knowledge was only half of what he needed to learn. The other critical part involved immersing himself in his artistic subject of choice: the culture, history, stories, worldview, and living traditions of American Indians of the northern Plains. It’s not something a non-Indian can just  jump into, uninvited, he points out. McGary’s invitation came when he was 19 and living in Santa Fe.

After returning from Italy, he had been offered a job at Shidoni Foundry, where he worked for almost three years. When not working or making art, he spent time with friends, and among them were two Oglala Sioux brothers, Kevin and Ken Yellow Mountain, both students at the Institute of American Indian Arts. The brothers invited McGary to meet their uncle and spend the summer with their family in Poplar, MT. “I said sure,” the artist recalls, “not knowing it would literally change my life.”

The uncle, Gerald Red Elk, was a tribal historian for the Sioux. He was full of stories, and McGary was all ears. Red Elk’s nickname for the young artist, in fact, was Big Red Ears, because he listened so intently. Later McGary was adopted into Red Elk’s family and given another, more serious name: Big Eagle (McGary stands 6 feet 5 inches tall) refers to the eagle’s spiritual significance, but also to its role as a messenger, McGary explains. “Gerald was pleased with the work I was doing, and he saw me as a person who can educate others about their culture.”

McGary spent many more summers with his growing network of Native friends, often attending ceremonies where no one spoke English and he was the only non-Indian. Based on those ongoing relationships, along with careful research, he creates authentically detailed bronze figures depicting both the peaceful and warrior sides of early northern Plains life.
Once he decides on a subject, McGary may take as long as three to four years to research and visualize a work in minute detail in his mind before he even starts to sculpt. He “draws in 3-D,” as he puts it, building an elaborate steel and wire armature that includes such details as a man’s ribs. “I start literally from the bones out. The Italians taught me that realist sculpture has to look like it’s about to take a breath.”

McGary generally sculpts in the 30-inch-high range to create what he refers to as a masterwork, from which larger versions will be produced. His figures are formed in hard clay that has been heated so it can be molded, carved, cut, added to, and detailed with texture. When the clay cools, it re-hardens and is ready to go on to the multi-step bronze casting process, or to be enlarged.

Because color is such an integral part of Native culture, McGary spent years developing a process by which highly stable, enduring color is added to his work. It involves specially treating the bronze surface and using a combination of patinas and acrylic paint. He is personally involved in quality checking and finish work on every piece. “I work a lot, and I work very hard,” he notes, “and I also surround myself with very, very good people who share my passion for quality. It’s a real team effort.”

McGary also shares the American Indian philosophy of giving back. A percentage of the proceeds from tabletop editions of his monumental depictions of Shoshone Chief Washakie, for example, have thus far funded 35 scholarships for Native students at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. “Indian people have entrusted me with their culture and shared it with me,” he reflects. “It’s a real honor.”

Featured in October 2008