Bart Walter | Understanding Wildlife

Contemplation [1991], bronze, 22 x 22 x 26, edition 5. sculpture, southwest art.
Contemplation [1991], bronze, 22 x 22 x 26, edition 5.

By Marie Bongiovanni

“We really are at a crisis point in our relationship with the environment today,” says Dr. Jane Goodall, the renowned primatologist and conservationist. “If we’re going to pull ourselves out of the mess and rise to a future in harmony with the environment, we need everybody’s skills. Every individual can make a difference. And Bart Walter is one of those amazing individuals who is helping others to understand the true nature of wildlife and the environment.”

Bart Walter, a 40-year-old sculptor from Maryland, met Dr. Goodall in 1986 when she lectured at the College of William & Mary. Walter’s wife Lynn was earning her master’s degree in biology at the Virginia school at the time. Dr. Goodall remembers that Lynn was wearing a feather-shaped pin that Bart had carved out of wood and painted. “Bart had carved so much detail that it looked like a real feather,” says Dr. Goodall. “I asked if he could do a chimp, and then I didn’t hear from him for ages.”

For the next two years, Walter agonized over the pros-pect. “The thought of doing a chimp for a researcher who recognizes dozens, if not hundreds, of individual animals at a glance was daunting,” he says. “I spent a great deal of time in zoos sketching and doing clay studies directly from life, and I read all of her books. But I finally did it.”

Cheetah [1998], bronze, 62 x 10 x 31, edition 5. sculpture, southwest art.
Cheetah [1998], bronze, 62 x 10 x 31, edition 5.

Since then, Walter has sculpted numerous chimpanzees for the Jane Goodall Institute for Wildlife Research, Education, and Con-servation in Silver Spring, MD, as well as works for other public and private collections. In 1991 he completed Contemplation, a life-size chimpanzee that was unveiled in California at a celebration of Dr. Goodall’s 30th year of field research in Tanzania. One of the five pieces in the edition appeared in a one-man show at the Musée de Vernon near Paris in 1996. That year it was also included in an exhibition at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, WY, where it is now part  of the permanent collection. Contemplation will be on view starting this fall in the Masterworks of American Sculpture exhibition at the Fleischer Mus-eum, Scottsdale, AZ.

“In Contemplation, Bart moved away from the exacting detail that attracted me to the feather pin to something more powerful and expressive,” says Dr. Goodall. “He absolutely captures the essence of the chimp. He shows a being with an inquiring mind, which helps to spread my message about why chimps are special and should be saved.”

The realistic detail that Dr. Goodall first noticed was characteristic of Walter’s style when he started carving wood full time in 1980. By the end of the decade he had gained a reputation as one of the world’s top wildlife carvers, but he had begun to feel tentative working with wood. “Once you remove a piece of wood, it’s never coming back,” he says. “But in clay I can be spontaneous. I can use my intuition to apply a piece of clay, and if I don’t like it, I can take it off and put it back on in a different way.” Until 1991, when he finished his last wood piece, he made preparatory clay models of every carving.

“There was a major shift in Walter’s work when he switched from wood to bronze,” says Andy McGivern, curator of exhibitions at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, WI, which featured Contemplation in the 1993 traveling exhibition Wildlife: The Artist’s View. “In wood, his work was highly realistic, which is the standard for many wood sculptors. His work in bronze is much looser, more suggestive,” McGivern says.

In 1995 Walter sculpted a life-size lowland gorilla for Salisbury State University in Maryland. He had been asked to base the piece on an imaginary gorilla in Ishmael, a book by Daniel Quinn that was the focus of an honors class. “The author’s ideas about how mankind treats the natural world are compatible with my own,” says Walter. “Even though we can ignore many of the laws of nature over the short term, we’re subject to them in the long term, and we need to treat the world around us with respect for those laws.”

“Ishmael is truly a presence,” says Bill Bishop, owner of Bishop Gallery in Scottsdale, AZ, which represents Walter’s work. “Bart used these great slabs of clay to create the power of this life-size male gorilla. The gorilla is so big, but there is a marvelous sensitive quality to the face.”

While Walter was sculpting seven life-size chimpanzees for a children’s learning center in Iowa in 1998, he was visited by Craig Sholley, who studied gorilla behavior in Africa in the 1970s and ’80s as an assistant to the late Dian Fossey. “When I walked into Bart’s studio, the seven chimps jumped out at me,” says Sholley. “Their spirit, their vitality, and the personality of each chimpanzee sculpture was absolutely wonderful. The essence of great apes is their social nature, and Bart depicts a dynamic social group there’s no question about it.”

Walter has developed his talent for capturing the spirit and personality of chimpanzees, gorillas, and other creatures in part by observing them in the wild. In the fall of 1997 he journeyed to Kenya, and although the two-month adventure was a working trip for the sculptor, he was accompanied by Lynn and their daughters, 10-year-old Katie and 8-year-old Becky. “I took the entire family because they would have disowned me otherwise,” he says, smiling.  The family stayed at a guesthouse in the Aberdare Mountains and camped for three weeks with California sculptor Peter Brooke in the Masai Mara and Samburu. “We worked hard, but it was fun to be in the field with Peter,” he says. “We’d go out at dawn, work all day, eat, go to bed, then get up and do it all over again. I wanted to squeeze every moment of every day for everything I could.”

Based upon the wax field studies he created in Africa, Walter has sculpted elephants, cape buffaloes, and other species, including a life-size cheetah that he unveiled at the Sculpture in the Park show in Loveland, CO, in 1998. “The cheetah had taken down a young wildebeest right in front of us, and it was a powerful moment,” he says. “When we pulled around to where the wildebeest lay dead in the grass, I whipped out my wax and my wire and just started sculpting with no plans whatsoever.”

In Kenya the girls sometimes sketched with their father, and Katie’s hippos and Becky’s elephants decorate his studio wall. Both the studio and the family’s home are secluded on 20 acres that have been designated as a mini-wildlife sanctuary by the Maryland Ornithological Society.

A series of his own charcoal and graphite sketches, including storks, cheetahs, eagles, and elephants, are piled on a table alongside even more books. Dr. Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man [1988 Houghton Mifflin] lies open to a page of photographs, which Walter uses only to jog his memory and never as the basis for a pose. “I do not use photographs as references, except when I absolutely need them,” he emphasizes. “My favorite artists, people like Rembrandt Bugatti and Claude Monet, did not use them. The aspect of Bugatti’s work that most influenced me was that he worked directly from life.”

With a distinctive style, Bugatti [1885-1916] followed the tradition introduced by Antoine Louis Barye [1796-1875] and other French animal sculptors in the 19th century. Walter says, “[Texassculptor] Kent Ullberg showed me slides of Bugatti’s work when I had just become interested in working in clay as a final medium to be cast in bronze. I saw Bugatti’s wild surfaces and it gave me courage and inspiration. Like Rodin, he subordinated the surface to the form and the gesture of what he wanted to convey. Seeing his work made me decide that, yes, I could do it. Here was somebody with a similar idea who had established a successful career as a fine artist.” Instead of pursuing formal artistic training, Walter initiated a program of self-education, he says. He read countless books, including several Rodin biographies, and spent weeks in museums studying each and every sculpture.

The foundation of his understanding of the natural world had been established years earlier, long before he earned a biology degree from Hiram College in Ohio in 1980. He was raised in Baltimore but as a boy spent his weekends in the woods and marshes of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Even today, there’s nothing Walter would rather do than sculpt or be outdoors. “He’s terribly in tune with nature and with himself,” says Dr. Goodall. “Bart seems to absorb what’s going on in the world around him. It’s almost like he can push his own personality out of the way so that he can really get filled up with what he’s looking at.”

“I was always a loner,” the sculptor says. “I would go out with my black Lab retriever and wander around for hours and hours. All that time in solitude with nature was where I found my peace of mind. It’s where I found my definition of self.”

Photos courtesy Bart Walter Studio, Westminster, MD; Bishop Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ; American Legacy Gallery, Kansas City, MO; Rice & Falkenberg Gallery, Palm Beach, FL; and Russell A. Fink Gallery, Lorton, VA.

Featured in September 1999