By Wolf Schneider
ORNATE BOX TURTLE, BRONZE, 3 X 9 X 6
The 35-acre homestead where sculptor Diane Mason lives on the outskirts of Loveland, CO, is the ideal locale for her. For one thing, she says, Loveland is “sculptor heaven,” with an abundance of sculptors, sculpture gardens, and renowned sculpture shows. For another, Mason is surrounded by her subject matter. On her property she keeps 10 chickens, five doves, four guinea fowls, three dogs, two pigeons, and one lovebird. The chickens live in enclosures; the guinea fowl roam free to do their job of grasshopper control. Deer, rabbits, coyotes, and elk are frequent visitors.
“I built my studio last year. The deer hang out on the north side of the building, and they’ll actually press their noses to the windows and look in at me while I’m working,” says Mason. “They’re quite tame and have never been harmed here. They lie down in front of my windows and feed on the geraniums, cropping off the blossoms.”
Inside her 20-by-36-foot studio, Mason specializes in sculpting realist bronzes of hens, roosters, herons, and geese—along with the occasional fox, rabbit, and fawn. Her artworks are known for reflecting the behavior and personalities of her subjects, whether wild or domestic.
“It’s realism coupled with a touch of gentle humor. I lean toward the gentle side of nature,” she says. “Much of life is so serious that I prefer to be surrounded by things that make me feel happy. That’s what I try to instill in my work. If you observe animals long enough, you’ll see a gentle, playful side.”
Her rooster, whose name is Charmin’ Charlie, is a good example. If he’s feeling affectionate when Mason goes through the barn to the chicken pen, he’ll grab her pant leg with his beak and give it a tug. “That means,” Mason translates, “‘I want to be held.’” So she will pick him up and sit with him for a while, stroking him under the wings. “He’ll lift his wings out so I can rub him there, and he’s happy. He’s quite the fella,” she says. “Most people don’t think chickens are intelligent. And they are right about that. Chickens aren’t terribly intelligent, but they can learn. And they can be very affectionate.”
DON’T MESS WITH MOMMA, BRONZE, 12 X 11 X 7
Charlie has been immortalized in Mason’s sculptures. “Each piece begins with an idea, and with photos,” she explains. She typically takes around 40 photos of an animal before sculpting it. And if she can familiarize herself with the animal’s anatomy and personality first-hand, all the better.
“Animals have individual personalities,” Mason maintains. “I don’t look at an animal as simply representative of a species, all operating according to innate characteristics. They are individuals, and they are influenced by their surroundings.” She backs up this opinion with four years of studying animal behavior as an ethology major at Purdue University. “Animals have emotional lives. They can think. They have a sense of fun.”
Mason sculpts in clay, building structural armatures out of plumbing pipe, wire, wood, foam, and wire mesh. The sculpting process takes about two months per piece. A mold is created, wax is poured in, then removed, as the artworks go through the foundry process. Her bronzes, usually in editions of 19, generally stand up to 18 inches tall, although a few rise up to 4 feet in height. The finished pieces can be displayed indoors or out.
Of her proclivity for sculpting chickens, Mason says, “I’ve always found them totally charming.” Artworks like ON THE ROAD WITH MOTHER GOOSE reflect a fairy-tale sensibility. For a recent piece called MULE DEER FAWN, which portrays a five-month-old fawn munching on blackberries, she reflects, “I was going for a little surprise—and curiosity. The fawn is not afraid, but it has been startled while browsing on berries, and it’s curious.” With SPRING IS IN THE HARE, she was aiming to capture exuberance. Hares, she points out, are slightly larger than rabbits, with longer legs and ears. And for FAST FOOD TAKEOUT, a sculpture depicting a heron eating fish from a bucket, she was inspired by the bait fish that her dad would toss in buckets when fishing off his dock.
Mason was born in a Chicago suburb in 1951, to a mom who was a homemaker and a dad who worked in the manufacturing business. Her father loved to hunt and fish—so much so that he moved the family an hour north to be near the Chain O’Lakes recreational area in northern Illinois. There, they had ducks and chickens as pets and a boat dock right behind their house, and on a nearby farm they raised corn, soybeans, hogs, and lambs. Her father brought his prizes home, where young Diane helped clean them. “I could examine the animals and see the beauty of their feathers or the color of the fish scales,” she recalls. She was sketching them by the time she was in the first grade.
Across the country road from her family’s house were stables that were used part of the year by people who raised show horses and the other part of the year by a traveling circus. “They had elephants, bears, camels, zebras—it was an amazing childhood,” Mason remembers. “We could watch them give the elephants their baths. We had so much freedom to play and learn.”
It was only natural, when she went off to Purdue University in 1969, that she would study something involving animals. She majored in ethology, thinking she might work in a zoo. “You learn the triggers that cause an animal to do something,” she explains. “More importantly, you learn to observe, and by observing carefully you begin to understand what the animal is all about.”
To be practical, Mason earned a bachelor of science degree with a dual major in ethology and industrial psychology, a line of study for motivating people in the workplace. She went to work in human resources after marrying her husband, Bob, a computer guru. But she eventually left corporate life to return to Purdue, this time for a job collecting delinquent student loans. As might be expected, this was not a harmonious line of work for Mason, a woman with enough heart to stop and pet the chickens. “I lasted for three and a half years, until I had bleeding ulcers,” she confesses.
In the 1980s, her husband took a job in Wichita, KS, and Mason took up scratchboard art, with animals as her subject matter. She took workshops, mastered the medium, and very quickly was teaching it herself. She showed in galleries, on the Midwest art circuit, and exhibited at the Wichita Art Museum. In the early ’90s, she moved into terra-cotta, fired-clay sculpture, still specializing in animals…
Finally, in 1995, in her forties, she began taking workshops at the now-defunct Loveland Academy of Fine Art. Studying with Gerald Balciar, who is known for his stylized wildlife sculptures, Mason realized that she, too, wanted to sculpt animals in bronze. “It was a huge turning point for me,” she declares. She took more workshops with animal sculptor David Turner. In 1997, she and Bob bought their 35 acres near Loveland. Bob was able to transfer his job, and they moved to Colorado the following year.
“I didn’t cast my first piece until the fall of 2000, when I was 49. I took workshop after workshop. I found this career a little late in life, but I often think that had I wanted to do this earlier in life, I couldn’t have afforded to,” muses Mason.
Now in her fifties, Mason sits on the executive board of the Society of Animal Artists and creates six to seven new sculptures a year. She wouldn’t dream of wearing real fur, and she only buys free-range eggs (her own chickens are too old to lay anymore). Her home, she jokes, has become known as the Loveland B&B for Artists because so many sculptor friends stay in the guest suite. What hasn’t changed in her Colorado life, though, is what began way back in Illinois: “I love being surrounded by animals. There’s a simplicity to them, there’s nothing hidden,” says Mason. “Animals are the center of my universe. Every time I come in the door, my dogs are so happy to see me. It’s pure love.”
Featured in April 2008