Whitetail Buck, bronze, 181⁄2 x 15 x 4, edition 40.
By Todd Wilkinson
In today’s high-tech world, wildness is a relative term. “We are left with varying degrees of wildness in our daily lives,” says artist Tim Shinabarger, running his fingers across a freshly cast elk stag. “I enjoy portraying wild animals because they deliver a timeless yet contemporary message: Animals are visual reference points for understanding beauty, and they give us a stronger connection to the land around us.”
For Shinabarger [b1966], the age-old tradition of celebrating nature assumes even greater importance as we approach the dawn of an even more technology-driven millennium.
His provenance, the American and Canadian West, is a landscape vastly changed since the 19th century when impressionists like himself chronicled their visions of the frontier. In many ways, the young sculptor and oil painter from Billings, MT, is following in their footsteps. In doing so, he has blazed his own trail among his contemporaries.
Tim Shinabarger in Alaska.
He has also blazed a trail literally through the wilderness. Consider Shinabarger’s latest research pilgrimage, a 21-day encampment in the bush of Alaska. Venturing into the far north, he says he was inspired by the reflections of renowned wildlife painter Carl Rungius [1869-1959], who would disappear on horseback into the Canadian Rockies or the Wind River Mountains for weeks at a stretch. Every autumn, Rungius emerged from the mountains with sketchbooks full of ideas that informed the paintings he completed back home in his New York studio.
“Rungius went into the country when much more of it was wild,” Shinabarger says of the artist to whom he is most often compared. “I’m very envious of the opportunities he had, but today there are still rare places you can go to find wildlife untouched by civilization. I feel drawn to those places because there I can get a more complete picture of the animals I am trying to portray.”
Timber’s Edge, oil, 24 x 32.
Last summer in Alaska, Shinabarger realized he was in a special place when, after two weeks, he hadn’t seen a single jet contrail in the sky. For days, he rose before dawn, packed his portable palette in his backpack, and ambled around the toe of massive Chisana Glacier, 85 miles from the nearest road. Enduring torrential downpours and skirting berry patches lurking with hungry grizzly bears, Shinabarger spent the bulk of his time in the Wrangell Mountains scouting for Dall sheep. Aside from studying the animals themselves, he also committed to memory the cloud-ringed peaks, mantles of low-hanging fog, and fiery sunsets that have inspired some of his most dramatic paintings to date.
Black Timber Bugler, bronze, 27 x 25 x 12, edition 30.
Bill Kerr, a founder and board member of the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, WY, says there is good reason why critics compare Shina-barger’s work to that of Rungius. Like Rungius, Shinabarger has extensive knowledge of animal behavior and a talent for conveying the personality of a subject—neither of which can be learned in the studio alone.
Shinabarger’s subjects have definite attitude. Whether a stately moose gazing out across a field or a mountain lion about to ambush its prey, the animals Shinabarger portrays capture our attention in part because of their authenticity. It’s a quality that comes from observing so many natural moments, both on the sagebrush prairie in his native Montana and at the extreme reaches of the northern tundra.
Country to Roam, oil, 32 x 48.
“I remember one morning in Alaska watching a big male bear probably the biggest bear I had ever seen walking by a caribou. The bear was taller than the caribou and twice as heavy,” Shinabarger says. “Later, despite his size and weight, he started zigging and zagging like a cutting horse across the face of a mountain meadow. It turned out he was chasing an arctic squirrel, and eventually he caught it. What impressed me was the fact that neither of these animals cared one bit about my presence. They were the kings of their world and they knew it.”
Soft-spoken and thoughtful with a boyish lank in his stride, Shinabarger hasn’t always pursued his artistic talent. Born in Great Falls, MT, the adopted hometown of Charlie Russell, he hunted and fished in the Rockies as a boy. He took up taxidermy as a natural outgrowth of his interest in big game and intended, in fact, to pursue it as a career. During the summers of his college years, Shinabarger was hired by the U.S. Forest Service to be a back-country ranger and firefighter in the famous Absaroka-Beartooth wilderness just outside the northeast corner of Yellowstone Nat-ional Park. In the autumns he guided hunters and sketched around the campfire at night to keep a visual journal of the day’s events. But he never thought of himself as an artist.
In the Burn, oil, 20 x 24.
Shinabarger’s first true foray into art came unexpectedly after he was waylaid by fate along a back-country trail. During a snowmobile trip up the main Boulder River in 1986, he accidentally buried his machine in a deep snowdrift and was stranded in temperatures well below freezing. He suffered severe frostbite on his feet, which necessitated weeks of bed rest. Feeling fidgety, he picked up a piece of clay left over from a taxidermy mount and modeled an elk head. On a whim, he had it cast and, to his surprise, a friend who came over to visit immediately wanted to buy it. Within weeks Shinabarger was sculpting full time, winning small commissions from his former taxidermy clients as news of his talent spread.
In 1993, his arrival as an artist became official when one of his sculptures won the Tuffy Berg Memorial Award at the annual C.M. Russell Auction of Original Western Art in Great Falls. Since then his work has been featured regularly in the National Museum of Wildlife Art’s annual miniatures show, at events sponsored by the Society of Animal Artists, and in the National Sculpture Society’s year-end exhibition, where he recently won the prestigious Louis Bennett Prize for special merit in design by a young artist.
Early in his career, Shinabarger studied with Montana artist Hazin Alkire, who steered the impressionable student away from relying on photographs as a primary reference tool and turned his attention instead to the lessons offered by painting outdoors. Those sessions were complemented by workshops Shinabarger took with artists Clyde Aspevig, Bob Barlow, and Hollis Williford. In fact, Shinabarger is now counted among a fraternity of fine artists from the Rocky Mountain region who are ushering in a new era of western romanticism. The list includes Scott Christensen, Tim Lawson, Geoff Parker, and Skip Whitcomb as well as Aspevig, Barlow, and Williford.
“Hollis told me that sculpture is like a solo, while painting is bringing together the whole orchestra,” Shinabarger says. Indeed, as a painter he has evolved toward a combination of bright colors and a strong sense of atmosphere a combination that often makes his landscapes as compelling as the animals that are their focal point. An example is the painting Country to Roam, in which Shinabarger used broad vertical brush strokes to portray a grizzly bear sauntering through the mountains.
And while Shinabarger’s paintings have attracted attention, it is the depth of his sculpture for which he is better known. “I feel driven to paint, but sculpting comes more naturally,” he says. According to John Apgar, director of J.N. Bartfield Gallery which represents Shinabarger in New York City, viewers sense the artist’s natural talent. “People are drawn to his innate sense of design and to the spontaneous textures of his bronzes, which depart from the polished look of most other animal sculptors,” Apgar says. Once again, Shina-barger credits his teachers with this success. “Hollis [Williford] showed me the different ways the head of a pencil can be used to convey texture, and then how those textures can be brought to life in clay,” Shinabarger says. “Sculpting an animal is like drawing it 100 times from every angle.”
Recently, Legacy Gallery in Jackson Hole unveiled several new Shinabarger paintings and sculptures in a five-artist show that also included works by Ken Bunn, Robert Abbett, Luke Frazier, and Michael Coleman. “His animals imbue a spirit,” says gallery director Pam Flores. “His bronzes are so touchable and graceful. They have an old feel about them.” Shinabarger’s pieces are more contemplative and, in one sense, realistic than raw outpourings of emotion, and it is this classic approach to representation that appeals to collectors.
The only problem Shinabarger faces, he says, is finding enough time to drink in the landscapes that satisfy his hunger for wildness. He’s been busy lately, completing a large painting of a mule deer set in Yellowstone National Park, a moose painting based on a trip to Canada, and a sculptural trove that includes a bull elk, three bighorn sheep, a mountain lion, a moose, and a large buffalo composition. He finds poignancy in the words of wildlife sculptor Alexander Phimister Proctor [1862-1950] who said, “I would not change my life for any other, but my love has always been divided. I am eternally obsessed with two deep desires—one, to spend as much time as possible in the wilderness, and the other, to accomplish something worthwhile in art.”
As Shinabarger approaches the start of a new millennium, he can rest assured that he’s well on his way to accomplishing both.
Photos courtesy the artist and Legacy Gallery, Jackson Hole, WY, and Scottsdale, AZ; J.N. Bartfield Galleries, New York, NY; Collector’s Covey, Dallas, TX; Montana Trails Gallery, Bozeman, MT; Fox Gallery, Woodstock, VT; and DeMott Gallery, Vail, CO.
Featured in December 1999