Walter Matia | The Sporting Life

By Wolf Schneider

Walter Matia’s sculpting career has not exactly been one of trials and tribulations. “It’s been a ball,” says Matia. “I work very hard, but it has not been a struggle.”

Rising Pintails, bronze, 78 x 60 x 24.

He’s well suited to it, for one thing. “I’m a good observer,” he says, acknowledging a trait that helps him translate birds, sporting dogs, wildlife, and other animals into realistic renderings in bronze. “Plus I went to a college that had an extraordinarily good art department,” says Matia, who is based in Dickerson, MD. Yet for all the enjoyment he gets from creating sculptures of dogs, ducks, quail, grouse, wild turkeys, and the occasional horse or bull, it still presents challenges. “The longer you do it, you find the things that satisfy you are more and more complicated,” he explains. “When I was younger, I cranked it out. Now some stuff takes forever because I know so much more.”

First and foremost, he strives for artwork that is structurally correct. “When you’re creating representational art, you don’t want people’s first impression to be, ‘Gee, I thought a horse had four legs, not three,’” he quips. So Matia starts from a richly informed base of anatomical knowledge. Then comes the narrative. “I have a bit more of a narrative to my work than some sculptors do,” he notes.

Matia’s sporting-dog sculptures of Labrador retrievers, English setters, American foxhounds, and English pointers all contain an obvious life force—they are alert, often pointing, with head striving forward, and muscles taut. “I try to pick that moment just before the aggressive gesture happens. You have to get the bones to the surface and pick those muscles and ligaments that will emphasize the surety of what these dogs are bred for,” he explains. “I’ve got a different set of problems than somebody doing a moose or an elk. I’m working not only with the animal itself, but also with a set of gestures that will be intimately understood by the people who work with dogs.

“With birds I’m not as confined to a literal translation, so I can push it a little more; there’s more room for interpretation,” he continues. “The hard part of being an animal sculptor is to not fall into some formula.”

Early on in his sculpting career, Matia was obsessed with chronicling his subjects. He visited zoos, made drawings of animals, took photos, constructed cardboard cutouts. He would stop to pick up road kill and preserve dead birds in his refrigerator. In fact, he still preserves dead birds. “Carcasses are your stock in trade if you’re in the animal sculpture business,” says the 55-year-old artist. “Today I have a refrigerator just for dead animals.” And in it? “Currently I have two quail, a woodcock, a wild turkey, and a fox.”

Missing the Master (Maquette), bronze, 22 x 17 x 8.

Matia sculpts in wax rather than clay because the strength of the wax allows him to be somewhat less organized about his armature. He usually starts by shaping a small maquette, though his final sculptures may range anywhere from 4 inches to 14 feet in height and weigh anywhere from 4 ounces to 2 tons. Editions vary from 48 to 12 pieces—the bigger the sculpture, the smaller the edition. Small works, of course, are more easily accomplished, with increasing complexity as the sculptures increase in size.

The sporting dogs Matia sculpts are based on real-life animals. “Most of them are my friends’ dogs,” he says. “I’ve been hunting for 35 years, and I have hunted in some fabulous places. It’s one of the perks of my job. I go all over the country, from Montana to the eastern shore of Virginia to the panhandle of Florida and the shores of Lake Erie. They are all different hunting situations with a great variety of dogs,” says Matia, who is also a dog trainer. “The thing I like best about hunting is the dog. I’m not a deer hunter, mostly because there’s no dog involved.”

Matia is also an avid fisherman and bird watcher. “Most of my hunting is really bird watching,” he confides. “The shot is pretty ephemeral. Everything else takes a long time, and you’d better like it that way or you’ll be very dissatisfied. You have to like the whole package—and I do.” Though based in Maryland, Matia says the West holds a special allure for him. “I love the short-grass prairie,” he says. “When I’m really lucky, I get to go prairie grouse shooting in Montana. And I regularly go out west to fish.”

Matia was born and raised Cleveland, OH, the son of a lawyer dad and art-enthusiast mom. As a boy, he collected bugs, fossils, and snakes, and (even then) stuffed dead animals in the fridge. He started art classes at age 10, and during his teen years he apprenticed in the exhibits department at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. “I had a long childhood of learning to see,” says Matia.

Educated at Williams College in Massachusetts, Matia earned degrees in biology and art design. In the mid-1970s, shortly after graduating, he was offered a job at the Nature Conservancy in Washington, DC. He worked there for 11 years, rising through the ranks to the post of vice president in charge of land management. “My job took me all across the country, and wherever I went I stopped in at art museums, looking at everything from Renaissance painters to Jasper Johns.”

Matia had—and still has—a special fondness for the French Animaliers, particularly the works of sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye. “Barye was able to get beyond simple anatomy to the beautiful sculptural forms of animals,” explains Matia. “He worked in a romantic tradition typical of the mid-1800s. So the storyline, as it were, of many of his pieces was very romantic. He did this through integrity of observation, yet at the same time he avoided making his animal sculptures scientific studies.

“Barye spawned a whole school of artists who followed after him, culminating in Rembrandt Bugatti, who was the best of the best,” continues Matia, referring to the Italian-born sculptor who committed suicide in 1916. Among Matia’s American influences he mentions both Charles Russell and Frederic Remington. “Russell could push his compositions   continued on page 168 Matia, wonderfully, as could Remington and a host of other American Animaliers.”

Matia had pursued sculpting as a hobby while working at the Nature Conservancy. “In 1987, I was at a point in my life where I wasn’t married, I didn’t have kids, and I wanted to give sculpting a go,” he recalls. “I said to myself, ‘I’m going to do it now before my life gets more complicated.’” So he moved from Virginia to Maryland and set up a studio.

“I love sculpting,” says Matia. “It piques all my interests. It’s challenging enough to be interesting and intellectual enough to be worth doing.” His sculptures started selling and soon commissions began mounting. His many commissions include sculptures created for the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, WY; the National Bird Dog Museum in Tennessee; Colorado’s Benson Sculpture Park; and the Blair House in Washington, DC, the official guest quarters for the White House. For the Houston Texans football team, he created SPIRIT OF THE BULL , which is installed outside of Reliant Stadium. The work consists of two monumental pieces each with three larger-than-life-size Spanish fighting bulls. It was his biggest commission yet. Matia, now married, bought a nearby 2,500-square-foot warehouse that he converted into a studio so he would have enough room for the bulls. “So much of sculpture is about storing stuff, from the crates to the castings to the patinas to the old models and sculpture stands,” he says.

When did he know he’d made it? “I think it was when I realized that everything I do doesn’t have to be pushed beyond what I actually understand,” Matia replies. “When you’re first starting out, everything is so precious. You can confuse the time you work on something for its actual quality.”

Matia says there was a time when he became so fond of imaginative strokes he refers to as “rhetorical flourishes” that he left them in his sculptures even when they didn’t serve the overall statement of the artwork. Now, he resists that temptation and discards such flourishes. “I no longer feel the need to not throw them away,” he muses. “I think you’ve made it when you’ve reached that level of maturity, when you have enough confidence to not be beguiled by your own work.”

Featured in July 2008