Wildlife sculptor Tim Shinabarger moves to the next level of enjoyment and exploration with his art
By Gussie Fauntleroy
This story was featured in the September 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art September 2013 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
Who would imagine that a John Singer Sargent painting of a beautiful woman would serve as inspiration for sculpting an African lion in clay? Tim Shinabarger would not have imagined that, at least not early on in his career. When the Montana-based artist first began exploring both wildlife painting and sculpture, each art form was a separate way of expressing his lifelong love of wilderness. It was a way of living out his boyhood dream of discovering what’s in the next valley and sharing what he finds.
But at some point, especially while studying with painter and sculptor Hollis Williford, the young artist began to realize that the underlying principles are the same, whether the tool is a paintbrush or sculptor’s knife. He noticed that Sargent enhanced the illusion of a woman’s lush, wavy hair by applying thin paint in the dark areas and thick paint for highlights, since oil paint’s smooth finish reflects light. Shinabarger began taking the same approach with sculpture, producing the impression of soft, deep fur in the lion’s mane through the physical manipulation of clay to produce shadow and light. “Hollis painted, sculpted, etched, and drew—he did it all, and he got through to me that the thought process is all the same,” Shinabarger says, standing in front of the lion he is sculpting in his spacious studio near Billings. Turning his gaze to another work in progress, the 47-year-old artist observes, “It’s really all about the light. There are a million ways to put on paint, and I’m finding different ways to put on clay.”
Neither paint nor bronze was in Shinabarger’s long-term plans when he entered Eastern Montana College (now Montana State University, Billings) in 1986, headed for a business degree. Instead, the son of an accountant-turned-house-builder intended to pursue a career in taxidermy, a dream that began in the backcountry around Billings, where he grew up. Wild animals were an essential part of his world, frequently observed and admired as he and his father wandered through the mountains on horse or mule pack trips. “I’m kind of an explorer at heart,” the sculptor explains. His boyhood imagination took him even further, fueled by books about fur trappers and such figures as Carl Akeley, who in the early 20th century traveled to Africa collecting and mounting animals for dioramas in natural-history museums. “It sounded great,” Shinabarger says. “You get to see the world and collect specimens! I didn’t realize that that time had pretty much passed.” So he created his own version of the explorer/collector’s life, teaching himself to mount small game animals by age 12. By high school he had his own taxidermy customers.
But the dream began to shift during Shinabarger’s first year in college, when frostbite from a snowmobiling misadventure resulted in an extended bed stay and he filled the time modeling small animals in clay. With a strong foundation in animal form and anatomy from taxidermy, he signed up for night classes in painting and sculpture. Later he honed his skills through workshops and friendships with acclaimed artists including Clyde Aspevig, Hollis Williford, James Reynolds, Richard Loffler, and Bob Kuhn.
During college and for several years afterward, Shinabarger divided his creative energy between painting and sculpting, with wildlife as the primary subject for both. Working summer and post-college jobs as a forest fire fighter, forest ranger, and pack-trip trail guide, he found inspiration everywhere. Eventually, he realized there wasn’t enough time to pursue both media with the focus and passion he wanted to dedicate to his art. He committed himself to bronze, with award- winning results, although he still has easels set up in his studio and eventually plans to ease more painting back into his life. Meanwhile, his widely collected wildlife sculpture has earned major honors at such venues as the Western Visions show at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, WY, and the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum’s annual Prix de West Invitational.
Much of Shinabarger’s time during the past year and a half has gone into producing a body of work for his largest-ever one-man exhibition at Legacy Gallery in Jackson, WY, opening September 13. The show celebrates a 20-year affiliation with Legacy and coincides with the popular Jackson Hole Fall Arts Festival from September 5 to 15. Preparing for such a show was made easier by a change he made to his approach about three years ago: setting up multiple stands and working on several sculptures at once. The process allows Shinabarger to step away from a piece for a few days and come back to it with fresh eyes. “I try not to put anything on a deadline. It’s a huge plus to be able to live with the pieces and make sure I did what I wanted to do before I let them out the door,” he explains. “I looked at the old masters and realized they didn’t operate in this world of got to get it done!”
One work that stayed in the studio for at least a year was THE MOUNTAINEERS, a 48-inch-tall wall piece depicting three bighorn sheep on a triangular rock outcropping. It is the largest and most complex of Shinabarger’s wall sculptures to date, although he was relieved to find it weighs no more than a large framed painting. True to the way bighorn sheep appear on a mountainside, the rock itself is a dominant presence, its facets reflecting light with the massive, solid feeling of stone. “It’s all about the cliffs, the play of light and shadows, the half-tones and middle-tones,” he points out. To achieve such effects, he often uses pieces of cloth, leather, or wood, creating texture by pressing them into the clay.
For reference and inspiration in the studio—which sits on 160 acres of sagebrush prairie with spectacular mountain views—Shinabarger keeps a mounted pronghorn from his taxidermy days. The antelope is joined by museum- quality mounted elk, buffalo, wolverine, and lynx by friend and master taxidermist DaWayne Dewey. Antlers, animal bones, and even plaster castings of hooves serve as additional reference material, while a computer provides quick access to countless wildlife photos and videos Shinabarger has taken over the years. “I just do not sculpt anything until I experience it,” he says.
That depth of experience comes from the extended trip Shinabarger makes into the wild most years, always accompanied by his wife, Roxanne. Among his favorites have been expeditions to Alaska, the Arctic, and Africa, as well as countless pack trips in Yellowstone and around the mountain West. Staying in the wilderness for at least two weeks allows him to “get in sync with that world, the landscape and the animals,” he notes. And bringing back video documentation of wildlife provides a crucial visual reminder of movement and gesture, which often is where a sculpture idea starts. In Zambia, for instance, Shinabarger was struck by the peppy, trotting gait of warthogs, whose apparent surplus of attitude and agility contrasts with the usual image of a hog. “I envisioned them being dirty little pigs, but holy cow! This animal thinks he’s something. They’re so ugly, they’re cool,” he says, laughing. The result of this revelation is a tabletop-sized warthog sculpture titled WILD THING.
The title of another recent work, BIG ITCH, came from the name of a packhorse with which Shinabarger once worked. He liked the name and appropriated it for a 34-inch-tall sculpture of a grizzly bear scratching his back on a tree. The work is mounted on a revolving stand, which emphasizes the twisting, turning movement of the bear. The artist’s aim was to capture this sense of movement while contrasting deep, plush fur with the tough, gnarled texture of the tree. “I’m always trying to convey the impression, the feeling I get,” he says. “Sometimes it’s all about the animals and their habits, sometimes it’s all about the sculpture and design, but I always try to have something to say.”
With THE SWORDSMAN, Shinabarger chose to present the bust of a sable in a pose that accentuates the powerful long-horned antelope’s regal appearance, almost as if it were a chess piece. Dark red undertones in the patina suggest the heat of Africa, while the classical bearing reflects the sable’s position as “‘king of the forest,’ full of confidence,” Shinabarger says. For the artist, the confidence to stretch into untried levels of design and technical challenge comes only after years of continuous learning and work. “I feel like right now I’m finally hitting the point where I can really enjoy it,” he says. “Now if there’s a problem, I set it aside. I live with it and embrace the problem, and solutions come. I would say that sculpting has become a real pleasure, and I think the more fun you have with it, the more you learn. I’m a constant student; it’s just an ongoing quest.”
Legacy Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY; Claggett/Rey Gallery, Vail, CO; Collectors Covey, Dallas, TX; J.N. Bartfield Galleries, New York, NY; Coeur d’Alene Galleries, Coeur d’Alene, ID; Ponderosa Art Gallery, Hamilton, MT; Banks Fine Art, Bozeman, MT; www.timshinabarger.com.
Featured in the September 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
Southwest Art September 2013 print issue or digital download
Or subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss a story!
MORE RESOURCES FOR ART COLLECTORS & ENTHUSIASTS
• Subscribe to Southwest Art magazine
• Learn how to paint & how to draw with downloads, books, videos & more from North Light Shop
• Sign up for your Southwest Art email newsletter & download a FREE ebook