Steve Kestrel | Letting Nature Lead

By Mark Mussari

Run River Run, bronze, 15 x 29 x 5.

When he was 24 years old, Steve Kestrel decided to hitchhike across the western United States. An aspiring sculptor, he had dropped out of college and was in need of some direction. While in New Mexico, he stumbled upon a magazine article about Georgia O’Keeffe and became determined to meet the famed Southwestern artist. Call it the audacity of youth, but Kestrel arrived in the town of Abiquiu, where O’Keeffe lived, and sauntered right up to her gate.

“She happened to be outside, but she was very unfriendly,” he recalls. “So I left and hitchhiked a little farther.” Yet something drew him back to the home of the internationally renowned figure. “I thought to myself, ‘Dammit, she owes young artists an explanation.’” This time, to his great surprise, O’Keeffe invited Kestrel to dinner, and the two spent hours discussing art.

And so, in a way, Kestrel ended up going home to start over. He was born in Alamogordo, NM, to a father who was a country physician and a mother who was a nurse. Although he was raised in the center of the small town, his family kept horses at a nearby ranch owned by some friends. “I hiked and rode horses in the mountains of southern New Mexico,” he remembers. “I drew a fair amount, but basically I was interested in wildlife.” By the time Kestrel was 11 years old, his family had purchased some acreage northeast of town to keep their own horses.

Gator Egg, fieldstone, 17 x 18 x 13.

The first art that Kestrel ever recalls seeing was a pair of “glorious” murals by Peter Hurd gracing the walls of the pueblo-style Alamogordo post office. The paintings depicted a man and woman rancher and an older Hispanic man irrigating a field. “Those murals really spoke to me visually,” he explains. Still, he took no art classes in school. “By high school, I thought I would become a veterinarian,” he observes. To that end, he began studies as a natural sciences major at Eastern New Mexico University, eventually transferring to Colorado State University. “I was happy with most of the science classes,” he admits, “but organic chemistry was my downfall.”

After Kestrel’s maternal grandparents died, his mother showed him a letter he had written to them when he was 19. “In it I had told them that I wanted to be a sculptor,” he remembers. Surprised at the discovery, he decided to change his major to fine arts and to focus on sculpting. “I used to do a lot of hiking and would see geological formations and Native American artifacts,” he comments.

“So I had always been fascinated by paleontology and fossils. I was particularly interested in stone, but no one at CSU carved in stone.” To make matters worse, Kestrel became disillusioned by the art history courses he took: “It was all memorization and dates—there was no context for what was going on at the time,” he explains. With only nine credits to go, he dropped out of college and began the hitchhiking trip that led him to New Mexico.

After his life-changing conversation with O’Keeffe, Kestrel continued to move around, living in both Hawaii and American Samoa. In time, he started drawing again and began to make furniture and to build houses in New Mexico and Idaho. When Kestrel met his wife, Cindi, he says his life became more focused. In 1980, the couple settled in Santa Fe—a block away from famed stone carver Boris Gilbertson. “He was a wonderful person and a mentor,” recalls Kestrel. “I worked in his studio for two years after his death, even using his old equipment.”

Influenced by Gilbertson, Kestrel decided to turn his attention full-force to carving directly into stone. “My main interest has been field and river stones,” he notes. “Quarried stone doesn’t interest me.” He lauds the varieties of shape, contour, and color inherent in these harder stones. “It’s always surprising once you cut into them,” he adds. In 1982, Kestrel committed himself to becoming a full-time sculptor—though he waited a solid year before approaching any galleries with his work.

Kestrel cites the stone carvings of sculptors John B. Flannagan and William Zorach as early influences on his work, and he nods to the three-dimensional creations of Constantine Brancusi, Robert Laurent, and Jose DeCreeft as inspirational. “My central focus has been animal images,” he observes. “I’ve been a conservationist since I was a kid, long before it became trendy.” To that end, he says that his work is an attempt to “take the emphasis off human-centered thinking—to have people understand the natural world.”

Kestrel does not use any wax or clay models in his artistic process. “I draw right onto the stone and then start carving,” he explains. He refers to this approach as “direct carving.” Once he chooses a stone, he decides how each mental image will fit that stone. He begins by drawing each image in chalk until he is satisfied with it and then switches to a permanent marker or grease pencil. “The color of a river stone usually changes after breaking through the exterior surface,” he confirms. “Unexpected dry cracks show up; textures change. Many variables may open up, inspiring new directions during the carving process.”

The artist surrenders freely to these unexpected twists and turns: “The trick is to be sensitive to these possibilities and use them to enhance the final carving,” he says. Along the way, he might emphasize a different line, deepen a shadow, experiment with texture, or change the volume of a form—whatever the material dictates. “For me, that’s a great part of the magic, beauty, and excitement of the carving process,” he insists. “You’re solving both aesthetic and practical problems. It’s challenging yet rewarding, because you end up doing things you wouldn’t do with a quarry block. And it’s never redundant. It’s not like making a model and then repeating it.”

One can sense the strong relationship between the medium and the shapes in all of Kestrel’s creations. His fealty to his materials results in elegant, stylized forms—at times bordering on abstraction—that emerge from each stone. Animals curve sensuously into ovoid shapes, faces appear mask-like, and creatures seem to rise in subtle relief from the very texture of a rock. An artistic marriage occurs between the stones and the artist’s hand, drawing the viewer’s attention back to the natural material. For example, two cranes unite in a stylized circle, emphasizing the stone’s smoothness, while a dark river stone sliced in two reveals a baby beaver in a nest. “I don’t approach my subject matter from only one point of view,” he explains. “I’m always exploring tangents. It’s very intuitive.”

For his mammoth piece SILENT MESSENGER, Kestrel carved a six-foot-long sarcophagus out of Colorado red sandstone and then placed his sculpture of a five-foot-long black granite raven, lying on its back, inside the box. “I usually celebrate the earth’s flora and fauna in my work,” observes the sculptor, “but with this piece I mourn the destruction and degradation of ecosystems worldwide and the tragic loss of unique animal species.” In both form and material, Kestrel juxtaposes the black granite raven—“an icon associated with nature and ancient creation myths”—and the red sandstone sarcophagus, “symbolizing the quest for dominance and control over the natural world.”

With its separate lid resting on a diagonal, the metaphorical sculpture functions more like an installation than an individual piece. The effect is chilling. “In the next century,” asks Kestrel, “will our societies and artists celebrate the remaining wildlife or mourn their passing?”

Another recent piece is powerful in its own way. In AUROCH ECHOES, a block of black granite seems to give birth to a bull. Like Athena rising full-grown from the head of Zeus, the bull emerges not only as a mature form in its own right but as a force emanating from the granite. The bull’s hind quarters merge into the dark stone, reinforcing its material origins. In GATOR EGG, a rough fieldstone egg appears to have cracked open, revealing a newborn alligator nestled within the shell. In both pieces one can sense the artist’s inclination to work with the inherent power of each stone, using natural forms to carve figures at one with their medium.

Today, Kestrel resides in a home he designed with his wife and helped to build in Colorado’s Redstone Canyon area, outside of Fort Collins. The house sits near Redstone Creek, where he culls many of the stones used in his direct carvings. “I also converted a 3,400-square-foot old barn on the property into a fully operating, heated and insulated studio,” he says. His wife Cindi keeps the books for him; he still refers to her as his greatest inspiration.

Kestrel is a member of the National Sculpture Society and the Society of Animal Artists. His sculpture has twice won Best of Show at the annual Coors Western Art Exhibit and Sale in Denver, which opens this month; he is the featured artist this year. He is a longtime participant in other shows as well, including the Prix de West Invitational and the Buffalo Bill Art Show. His works are also in the collections of numerous museums, including the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Wyoming, the Denver Art Museum in Colorado, and the Gilcrease Museum in Oklahoma.

It’s safe to say that O’Keeffe would be quite proud of the young man she invited in for dinner all those years ago. Through her time and generosity, the grande dame of Southwestern art inspired another New Mexico artist to fulfill his dreams.

Altamira Fine Art, Jackson, WY; Gerald Peters Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; James Graham & Sons, New York, NY; Simpson Gallagher Gallery, Cody, WY; J. Willott Gallery, Palm Desert, CA; Main Street Gallery, Saint Jo, TX; American Legacy Gallery, Kansas City, MO.

Upcoming shows
Coors Western Art Exhibit and Sale, January 8-23.
American Masters at the Salmagundi Club, May 2011.
Group show, Gerald Peters Gallery, Summer 2011.

Featured in January 2011.