By Rosemary Carstens
Most any day of the week, wildlife sculptor Bob Guelich can be found in his barnlike backyard studio surrounded by a menagerie of some 25 or more works in progress, which might include a ram, a rooster, a lion, a bear, an 8-foot eagle, a covey of quails, or a rafter of turkeys. His gift for capturing the essence of these creatures is immediately apparent.
Working with museums, zoos, the Smithsonian, and a variety of other sources, Guelich observes animals in both natural and artificial habitats. He reads everything he can find about them, takes hundreds of photographs, and keeps extensive files. He watches videos of animals in motion, playing it forward, backward, and in slow motion to gain a deeper understanding of how they move or fly. When a hunting buddy brings him a specimen, he’ll even dissect it to study the skeleton and musculature. Guelich has had the good fortune to spend hands-on time with live animals too—working with injured bald eagles in a zoo and once raising a lion cub for three years. Yet for all of this careful research, it is his profound connection to the spirit of the animals that brings his art to life.
A serious wildlife artist pursues many avenues to fully appreciate a subject’s unique biology and behavior. For example, Guelich is currently preparing to sculpt a Texas Longhorn, a breed of cattle known for its characteristic horns, which can measure 7 feet tip to tip. So far, he has obtained a skull and horns and has made a life cast of a steer’s hooves. In a few weeks, he’ll spend two days watching the judging of Longhorns to see what people think is a “nice-looking steer,” exemplary of the breed. Only then will he be ready to put his hands to the clay.
Guelich’s attention to detail is the first thing Richard Folger, owner of Folger Gallery in Midland, TX, noticed about the young artist’s work when he began representing him almost 40 years ago. “He takes no liberties with birds,” says Folger. “He sculpts them as they are.” Once, when Folger questioned the artist about a piece, Guelich responded by naming each type of feather found on the actual bird—and on his sculpture. According to Folger, “When Guelich issues an edition, it sells out immediately. I have clients who don’t want me to contact them when Bob does a new edition, they want me to send it. Immediately!”
Guelich came to his life’s work early on. He got hooked in the fifth grade, when he won a school art contest and had his drawing showcased in the classroom. “From that point on, I was drawing all the time,” he recalls. “And I drew a lot of birds and animals.”
Formal education didn’t hold much interest for him. But as luck would have it, an enthusiastic high school art teacher encouraged and guided him, and Guelich took Saturday classes in watercolor, drawing, and painting. By the age of 17, he was working two jobs and trying to figure out what to do next. When a Coast Guard recruiter assured him he would be assigned to San Francisco’s Alameda base as an artist, off he went to boot camp. But instead of wielding a pencil or paintbrush, Guelich found himself swabbing decks for three years on an icebreaker in the Aleutian Islands. Impressed by the grandeur of the scenery and its plentiful wildlife, the artist spent many long hours observing birds and animals, both on land and at sea.
Seeking a warm climate after his stint in Alaska, Guelich settled in sunny San Antonio after his discharge from the Coast Guard. He began working as an engraver and painting when he could find the time, selling at small local shows. At one point in the late ’60s, he was invited to go quail hunting with some friends. The eager dogs racing through the brush, flushing chattering coveys into the morning sky, thrilled the artist. He hunted frequently, mostly for the joy of being outdoors. The birds’ habitats and the details of various species he saw engrained themselves on his mind’s eye. These days, though, he shoots only with a camera.
Everywhere Guelich goes, he keeps a mental list of how many different species he sees, whether it’s a cocky domestic rooster strutting around a barnyard or a magnificent pair of bald eagles spiraling around each other in the sky. Asked where his interest in birds comes from, he says, “I can’t explain it. They just fascinate me. They are so mysterious, so aloof. I never tire of watching them.”
In the mid-’70s, Guelich made a radical shift in his art. He says, “I saw a Harry Jackson polychrome bronze and it blew me away!” He sold his inventory of paintings and switched to sculpture. In spite of limited experience with the medium, he felt its three-dimensional qualities were a better fit for his subject matter. He received lots of good advice and constructive criticism from established sculptors, he chuckles, because “They didn’t see me as a threat.”
Guelich is adamant that “sculpture is meant to be touched by those appreciating it.” He created a life-size pride of lions for the San Antonio Zoo. Originally it was fenced off from the public. When he insisted that the sculpture was made to be touched, it was reset to allow people to climb on the lions. Hundreds of visitors a day now have their photo taken with the pride.
The sculptor’s public art can be found in diverse venues, including the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, the University of Notre Dame, and the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. “Bob’s sculptures show an amazing understanding of his subject matter’s anatomy, and at the same time effortlessly capture the animal’s essence and personality,” says art consultant Steven Boody, co-founder and president of Boody Fine Arts, which specializes in placing large-scale publicly commissioned artworks around the country. “Although incorporating sculptures into a public environment can be tricky, Bob is able to integrate the pieces effectively, allowing them to read well within their surroundings.”
Awards for Guelich’s work continue to mount. He’s received the National Sculpture Society’s Annual Exhibition Gold and Silver medals, the Society of Animal Artists’ Medal of Excellence, and the Allied Artists of America’s Silver Medal of Honor. FISHING ROCK, the National Sculpture Society’s Silver Medal winner, shows a cluster of great blue herons patinated in bluish-green. At 6″2 feet tall and weighing between 800 and 900 pounds, the piece required intricate support engineering and was a massive undertaking. But the subject matter is dear to Guelich’s heart: “I have a love affair with the blue heron. I love its flowing topknot, its ele-gance, the way it walks so stealthily and stands motionless for long periods,” then, in a blur of action, “it impales its prey on its razor-sharp bill.”
A devoted family man who raised a lively brood of six children, the artist is a friendly, entertaining conversationalist who views life through a wry lens. At work in his studio, he might listen to one of dozens of tapes on World War II; to stories by Hemingway, Faulkner, John Grisham, or Carl Hiaasen; or to classic rock and roll. But “best of all,” he says, “is silence,” which allows complete concentration on the piece before him.
The sculptor’s creative process is lengthy and often physically demanding. It usually begins with the creation of an oil-based clay model, though he might end up going back and forth between clay and wax numerous times until he’s satisfied. Guelich thinks a lot about negative space, picturing each piece “in a box” to visualize the interplay of space and form. Next, he works with a professional mold maker to create a final wax model, but even this step might require several renditions as he strives for a specific effect.
Deep in the Heart Art in Bastrop, TX, is Guelich’s foundry, and he works closely with the professionals there to achieve his goals. From wax model to the phoenix-like emergence of the newly cast bronze sculpture, he insists on perfection. He paints about half of the pieces in each edition, emphasizing the wildlife’s natural coloration. He says that he loves that his medium can have “color as well as touch.” OPEN FIELD, a recent edition featuring a pair of mourning doves, illustrates the luminosity of his painted pieces. “The mourning dove has such beautiful, subtle coloration—ochres, grays, the bright cerulean blue around the eyes—all offset by the startling white contrasts.”
Guelich is an artist whose work reflects his excitement about wildlife and his drive to convey that excitement to others. He transforms ideas into clay and clay into bronze to create masterworks of animals in all their magnificence.
Rosemary Carstens, editor of the award-winning webzine FEAST, is writing a book about Mexico City artist Annette Nancarrow, a contemporary of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.
InSight Gallery, Fredericksburg, TX; Collectors Covey, Dallas, TX; Folger Gallery, Midland, TX; Wild Horse Gallery, Steamboat Springs, CO; www.bobguelich.com.
The Night of Artists, Briscoe Western Museum, San Antonio, TX, March 27.
Sculpture in the Park, Loveland, CO, August 6-8.
Featured in April 2010