Ken Rowe | Call of the Wild

Out of the Blue, bronze, 50 x 44 x 39
Out of the Blue, bronze, 50 x 44 x 39

By Gretchen Reynolds

As a young man, Ken Rowe was making his living hanging drywall when, in the kind of happy accident that would come to define his art career, he accompanied a friend to a taxidermy studio. The friend wanted a trophy fish mounted; Rowe wanted to spend a few hours away from drywall. The friend got his stuffed fish. Rowe got a more lasting, if less material, gift: the glimmerings of a different future. “I walked into that studio and thought, ‘Wow,’ he remembers. “It was so macabre, so fascinating.” Half-finished animal models stood stacked against the walls. Animal skins were scattered across the floor. In the middle was the proprietor, who was sculpting an animal’s body, the “mannequin,” over which a tanned skin would be stretched.

Rowe, who had dabbled in painting and sculpting, was entranced. “It was everything I was interested in,” he says. “It was sculpture. It was working with wildlife. It was creative work.” He knew at once that he wanted to try this strange new occupation, and without hesitation he apprenticed himself to the taxidermist they’d visited. “That began my formal art education,” he says dryly of his intense immersion in wildlife physiology, anatomy, and the mechanics of making sculptures. The training was perhaps somewhat untraditional, but also, Rowe believes, indispensable. “As a taxidermist, you study the mathematics of an animal’s body—measuring it, looking at it, coming to understand how the animal was put together,” he says. “It wasn’t bloody or gutty. It was, for the most part, respectful of the animal.”

But taxidermy has its limitations and drawbacks, ethically as well as aesthetically. After a few years, he found himself bothered by the mindset of some of the customers and their need to bag and display a beautiful creature. “I’d been a hunter myself, but I stopped after I went into taxidermy,” he says. And although there was creativity involved in the mounting process, it was limited. “I wasn’t really capturing the spirit of the animal,” says Rowe. Taxidermy, by its nature, required that he deal with surfaces, with the outer skin, not with essences. He felt something was lacking.

Which is why, slowly, in fits and starts, and with the help of a series of serendipitous events, Rowe moved into full-time wildlife sculpting. Today he is one of the premier naturalist sculptors in the West, a master of animal anatomy and of the subtleties of musculature, feather, and fur. Yet his work crystallizes something deeper and more complex. “I am trying to portray the essence of the animal,” he says. He’s moved far beyond mounting animals. He is now immortalizing them. In the process, he’s found a fulfillment he’d never expected. “I am privileged to get to do the work I do,” he says. “I am a very lucky guy.”
Rowe’s luck began at birth, as he was fortunate enough to have two parents who between them shared the very attributes that would come to define him as a sculptor. His mother, a housewife, was an accomplished painter and sculptor in her spare time. His father, an engineer for the Mountain Bell telephone company, was, says Rowe, “a mechanical genius. He could make anything.” Their combined talents conferred on their son a love of art and of craftsmanship. From the first, young Ken would make things…

Featured in July 2007
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