By Rosemary Carstens
As far back as the Middle Ages, men have practiced the art of alchemy—a mixture of chemistry, philosophy, and mysticism. Their mission was to find a magical means for transmuting common substances into gold. They were unsuccessful, but the concept of transforming common materials into extraordinary new objects remains relevant in modern times. Case in point: the contemporary alchemy of sculptor Dan Ostermiller, who transforms bronze into wondrous representations of nature’s most amazing creatures. Perhaps there is a bit of magic involved, but his art is a shining example of the results of long years of observation and fine-tuning his craftsmanship.
Ostermiller’s dedication to observation, especially, earns him high praise. “As a person, Dan is wonderfully thoughtful and observant. He has great humor and a bright intellect that continues to push him to discover and learn,” says Ann Brown of Nedra Matteucci Galleries in Santa Fe. “I believe his calm, quiet nature allows him to access his subjects at a level beyond a purely aesthetic rendering of the animal world. He has spent countless hours developing an understanding and expertise that offers us rare insight and sensitivity, ably conveyed in his art, challenging us both artistically and emotionally.”
Ostermiller was exposed to the artistic handling of the animal form almost from his birth in Cheyenne, WY. His father, Roy Ostermiller, was a world-renowned taxidermist and an avid sportsman who often spent months hunting in remote locations. He wielded considerable influence on his son and taught Dan about animals literally from the inside out. From the time the boy was old enough to sweep the floor, Roy had him in the shop, drawing his attention to all the minute details that comprise a well-preserved, well-displayed trophy animal. His father took Dan everywhere with him; Dan shot his first antelope by the time he was seven and was hunting elephant in Africa in his twenties. The Ostermiller table frequently featured fish and game. But sometimes, the artist says, “I longed for a regular steak!”
Although he’s had no formal art education other than the critical, well-honed technical skills he learned from his father, Ostermiller has been interested in art for as long as he can remember. The work of other men who built an art career upon a foundation of taxidermy also played a role in shaping his future. Such names as Carl Akley, James L. Clark, and Louis Paul Jonas roll off Ostermiller’s tongue with admiration, as does that of illustrious Italian animal sculptor Rembrandt Bugatti. He also credits such contemporaries as Herb Mignery, Jane DeDecker, George Lundeen, Glenna Goodacre, and Fritz White with helping to advance his work.
The deeper Ostermiller becomes involved in his art, the more important it is to him to be in the animals’ habitats, to see and understand how they move and behave. He studies details such as the hesitant pause before placing a paw or a hoof on the ground, the cocked head or swiveled ear, the massive bunched muscles of a lion’s haunches as he readies himself to attack, even the motions of domestic animals at leisure. Speaking of his time in the field, he says, “I like being in the ‘circle of life’ out there. Keen observation is so important, to see how the light affects the animals in midday, or at night. There’s something incredible about being in ‘their’ world. It gets pretty humbling—more so the more you experience.”
In addition to his in-depth knowledge of American wildlife, the artist has been visiting Africa almost every other year since that first trip with his father in 1978. Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, South Africa, and many other countries have been the sites of some amazing adventures. On one trip with his daughter, Lauren, they were watching a herd of elephants at a watering hole.
Two young bulls were mock fighting with one another and became so engaged in the tussle that they didn’t notice the herd moving on, leaving them behind. “The terror they felt when they realized they were alone was obvious,” says Ostermiller. “That event stuck in my mind for a long time. Sometimes an idea embeds itself like that and then, often much later, becomes a concrete concept for a piece I have to do.” He recently completed a 42-inch-long piece comprising 17 elephants, based on that incident.
Size, complexity, and detail never slow Ostermiller down when it comes to choosing subject matter. The artist tackles everything from larger-than-life-size public art to the exquisite 2-inch miniatures he creates each year during the holiday season. His largest piece to date, SCOTTISH ANGUS COW AND CALF, is installed outside the Denver Art Museum and consists of two gigantic elements.
The cow is 13 feet tall and the calf, 10 feet. In 2009, it was voted Denver’s best public sculpture. As with all of the sculptor’s works, these figures are noteworthy for their remarkable realism combined with individual personality. Constructing a bronze sculpture of this size is a time-consuming and literally monumental task. It proceeded from sketches to small-scale models (called maquettes) of each figure, which were then separated into pieces. Each piece was recreated on a larger scale and used for casting the hefty bronze panels that would eventually be fitted together in the finished work.
Ostermiller’s cow-and-calf pair are just one of his well-loved public art installations. The Stark Museum in Orange, TX, recently installed OBLIVIOUS at the building’s entrance. Managing Director Sarah Boehme found herself especially attracted to this piece, she says, “because of the artistry of the composition. The sculpture portrays a bear sleeping at the top of a tree trunk.
The trunk is angled diagonally, and the large mass of the bear exists dramatically cantilevered into space, yet it is masterfully balanced.” The bear’s rounded mass on its sharply angled base contrasts elegantly against the white cube of the museum building and is a favorite with visitors and passersby alike.
Ostermiller’s sculptures differ from the usual depictions of animals, as can be seen in such pieces as GRACE, Ostermiller’s metaphorical depiction of a giraffe, and in the muscular, craggy bulk of MONARCH OF YELLOWSTONE. There is an energetic immediacy and gestural quality to each piece that draws viewers closer. As Ann Brown suggests, “It is nearly impossible to visually absorb one of Dan’s creations without considering the character, the energy, and the movement he’s captured. Dan’s technical abilities are so acute and finely tuned, reflecting his confidence in translating the animal form. He is able to expand beyond the art form to the imaginative—every animal implies a narrative, whether reflecting the wilds of Africa, the human experience relating to our domestic animal friends, or simply nature expressing its creative magnificence.”
Ostermiller carries out nearly every step of his process in a two-acre compound in the heart of Loveland, CO, where numerous buildings dot the grounds. At the entrance is the office and conference room, where the number-one sculpture in each of his sold-out editions is displayed. Paintings, drawings, and illustrations from his extensive personal art collection line the walls, along with an exhibition of his and his father’s rifles. This is the kingdom of Niles the cat.
A second building holds the artist’s main work space and his library of some 4,000 volumes on art, animals, and travel. Ostermiller designed the surrounding landscape and created all of the water features; there are about 25 sculptures placed throughout the gardens. Two Bearded Collies, Inja and Jordie, roam the grounds, keeping an eye on things. During warmer months, pots of herbs, tomato plants, and annuals appear as well as a rose garden, bulbs for springtime color, and many flowering shrubs. The surrounding walls are covered with ivy, providing privacy and, the artist says, “a feeling of paradise.”
Rounding out the property’s structures is the “yellow studio,” so named for its yellow walls, which houses the artist’s collection of pre-Columbian and Native American pottery and where he does his conceptual work. It is here that Ostermiller pursues another passion: cooking. If he hadn’t become an artist, he says, “I’d have been a chef.” He’s not kidding—he’s a serious practitioner of the culinary arts and has studied in four different Italian cooking schools, most notably with Marcella Hazan in Venice and Giuliano Bugialli in Florence. Many a pleasurable hour has been spent at his Viking stove in the yellow studio, cooking for guests. Paradise indeed!
Professional and public recognition of Ostermiller’s art has expanded exponentially since his first show in 1980. His sculpture has won numerous awards and honors and has been included in exhibitions and one-person shows around the country. A member of the National Sculpture Society for many years and its president from 2003 to 2005, he soon begins a second term in office.
To view Ostermiller’s fine work is to reconnect with nature, to tighten our understanding of our relationship with all living creatures. Owning an Ostermiller sculpture punctuates our lives with a daily reminder of that connection. As Ann Brown sums it up, “Dan Ostermiller is one of those lucky individuals who have a passion that they realize, celebrate, and nurture with dedication throughout their lives. In doing so, he has been vital to the recognition of contemporary animal sculpture in American art.”
Nedra Matteucci Galleries, Santa Fe, NM; Claggett/Rey Gallery, Vail, CO.
Prix de West, Oklahoma City, OK, June 10- September 5.
Buffalo Bill Art Show & Sale, Cody, WY, September 2011.
Featured in March 2011.