Pete Zaluzec combines stones and bronze to endow his sculptures with a lifelike presence
By Norman Kolpas
Even the briefest glance at Pete Zaluzec’s new tabletop sculptures of North American wildlife leaves an instant impression of the animals they so expressively depict: A massive musk ox rises to its feet from the tundra. A polar bear gazes out across its icy habitat, still yet intensely alert. On the Great Plains, a bison reposes, its head tucked low into its chest.
So powerfully vivid is the impact each of these pieces makes that one is tempted, at first, to think they’re faithfully realistic in their rendering. But closer inspection reveals that so much more is going on.
The mass of these sculptures, their impressive impact, derives in part from the fact that irregularly shaped natural stones figure prominently in their creation, while bold touches of fired bronze fill in the blanks, pulling each piece into riveting focus. Rough rocks form the rounded hip, forward-thrusting shoulder, and outstretched neck of Zaluzec’s POLAR BEAR and the blocklike body of his MUSK OX. Most impressive of all, perhaps, is the RESTING BISON: a single irregular hunk of stone, the animal comes to life simply through fired-metal legs and horns.
It’s an eclectic, original way to capture nature in three-dimensional form. And, intriguingly, the approach provides an apt metaphor for the still-evolving career of the artist himself. Over the course of his 58 years, Zaluzec has fashioned a singular and coherent artistic vision out of disparate, seemingly unrelated, influences and experiences.
“My art training was observation,” says Zaluzec, summing up a childhood on Chicago’s South Side “just noodling around with pencil and paper,” mostly sketching “people, some landscapes, cars, things like that.” Art classes were minimal from grammar school through high school, he says, but his persistent personal drawing activities got him to what he now describes as “a level of competency.”
In subtle ways, however, each of his parents helped lay the groundwork for the creative future of their second of five sons. His homemaker mother, Nettie, “always had her hand in artwork and photography, and as far back as preschool, I’d be hanging out and helping. That kind of creative stuff gets hardwired into you at that age.” His dad, John, who worked in an electrical parts factory, “was a craftsman and a perfectionist. At home, he designed and built projects like a big backyard swing with two long benches where four to six people could sit face to face. When I was helping him along, everything would have to be right on the money. That was a big influence on me, and today the things I do are sometimes over-the-top in terms of accuracy and perfection.”
Even more significant was an interest in animals his parents fostered in him. “We were not a wealthy family by any means, and our two main activities were to go to the Field Museum of Natural History and the zoo—probably six or eight or ten times a year to each,” he recalls. “I got a really heavy exposure to wildlife and the natural world.”
After high school, Zaluzec’s modestly self-described “competency” in art won him a place at the respected School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Although he enjoyed his time there, he says, he had no real direction or purpose. He did, however, advance his skills well beyond pencil and paper, studying both sculpture and oil painting for the first time.
From the Art Institute, he launched into a procession of jobs that had “nothing to do with the arts.” Yet, each in its way laid some groundwork for his creative future. As a social worker, he led outdoor adventure programs for at-risk children—an experience that brought him closer to nature. So did several years cutting down trees for pulpwood in Wisconsin. All along, in his spare time, he made pen-and-ink sketches of animals, birds, and landscapes.
Back in Illinois, the craftsmanship skills he learned from his father led to a job as a woodworking teacher and then to teaching special-education classes in woodshop and art. In his mid-30s, he transitioned into custom architectural woodworking, a job he continues to this day.
“But here’s the thing,” he quickly adds with a self-deprecating laugh. “I’m now also a full-time artist.”
That transition started about 25 years ago, when Zaluzec’s dexterity with wood and his lifelong interest in nature found joint expression in carving and painting highly detailed, realistic birds. He began exhibiting them, and his works won top awards at annual world-championship shows held by prestigious institutions like the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art in Maryland. “I got really skilled at it,” he says with characteristic understatement.
Several years of such activities, however, started wearing thin for him. “That particular genre required so much detail and accuracy that it began to feel like just a great technical accomplishment,” he explains. “It didn’t feel like artwork for me anymore.”
As part of the bird-carving process he had perfected, however, Zaluzec had begun to take special pleasure in the clay models he routinely sculpted to capture the natural gestures of the birds. “I found there was more and more expressiveness to that process. It began to feel to me as if the pieces were done when I finished the clay models.”
Because clay is a fragile medium, casting those expressive models in bronze was the logical next step. Soon, his bird bronzes were being welcomed into top annual shows like those at the Ward Museum; Vermont’s Bennington Center for the Arts; the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, WI; and the Southeastern Wildlife Exhibition in Charleston, SC.
Once again, however, Zaluzec found himself beginning to “lose inspiration” several years ago, “because I got to such a comfort level doing those birds in bronze.” So he set himself a new challenge. “I thought, okay, I’m going to start doing mammals.” And he soon upped the challenge by deciding to incorporate stones into his bronzes, “because they were unchangeable, unworkable, and had a texture and a mass that I liked.”
With the level of attention to detail he learned at his father’s knee, Zaluzec developed a particular process for making those sculptures. It begins with drives three or four times a year to unspoiled places where he can view the animals he wants to portray, journeys as far-ranging as the Southwestern deserts, Yellowstone National Park, and Churchill, Manitoba, on the shore of Hudson Bay. Among the equipment he brings along are a professional- quality digital Canon camera body, a full range of lenses, and stable tripods—a setup that enables him to take high- resolution reference images of his subjects, which he downloads each evening to his computer for editing.
Along with that high-tech gear, he also brings several five-gallon buckets. These he fills with interesting river stones he comes across as he’s tramping through the wilderness.
Back in the studio—which he added to the house he shares with his wife of 31 years, Rita, in the town of Lake Villa, 50 miles northwest of Chicago—Zaluzec starts the serious creative work. From his edited photos, he sketches a profile of the animal he’d like to sculpt. Inside that profile, he draws irregular rocklike shapes—and then heads for his large collection of stones, looking for those that fit the outlines. He builds a metal armature to hold the stones in position. “And then I start applying wax, giving the stones the content of the animal.” Since foundries refused to cast the bronze parts of these one-of-a-kind pieces through the lost-wax process, leery that the hot molten metal would cause the rocks to shatter, Zaluzec assembled his own small foundry in which he himself builds the molds, puts them in the kiln, and pours the metal. “Some of the stones do bust up or dissolve,” he admits. “But usually you just get little cracks in the stones that add irregular detail to the finished sculpture.”
The unique results are so pleasing that demand for these animal sculptures has grown. In response, he has begun making second-generation molds from the stone-and-bronze originals and recasting them entirely in bronze limited editions. He even paints washes onto the stone-shaped areas to make them look like the originals.
Ever seeking new challenges and inspirations, a couple of years ago Zaluzec began experimenting with making prints from his personal photo archives. “I’m not going to compete with the professional photography world,” he says, “so I wanted to find a nontraditional presentation, working with a nontraditional paper.”
His research led him to gampi, a wood-fiber paper used in Japanese printmaking, combining subtle texture, translucency, and natural sizing on one side that holds a detailed image well. On this paper, he began printing Photoshop-processed images from his archives. Refining that process, he found that precisely aligning and gluing together two such identical images produced prints of remarkable depth and dimension. Zaluzec then attaches each limited-edition gampi print onto a backing board with tiny nails and sets it in a mitered, catalyzed-lacquered frame he builds himself. “There’s so much good-looking wildlife art out there,” he explains. “But most of it looks so traditional that I wanted to give these a really contemporary feeling.”
The multifaceted evolution of Pete Zaluzec’s artistic career leads to an inevitable question, one he repeatedly asks himself: What’s next? Not surprisingly, he already has an answer. “Very shortly, I plan to start doing oil painting, in character with what I’m doing now,” he says. “It won’t get tied down with exact detail. I’ll always stay true to the animals’ anatomy—that’s got to be correct—but I want it to be not illustrative but more gestural.”
Based on everything he has done before, the results will, no doubt, be out of the ordinary—and extraordinarily good.
Featured in March 2012.