AN INTERVIEW WITH TIM SHINABARGER
Written by Kim Weeks from her interview with Tim Shinabarger
Creating a bronze sculpture takes a number of steps and involves many skilled hands to bring it from inspiration to completion. But it is renowned wildlife sculptor, Tim Shinabarger, who turns proverbial lumps of clay into the magnificent bronze animals that have earned him numerous awards and accolades.
Called “one of the finest wildlife sculptors of this generation,” Tim’s approach to his work is elegant, meticulous, and reveals the soul of the animals he portrays. With each piece, he walks the line between forming an anatomical replica of an animal and creating a piece of unique art, which draws emotion and appreciation from those who are privileged to see it.
“I give the animals an individual personality. It should feel like a real animal in real time,” Tim said. “One of the [artists I have worked with] always told me, ‘You’ve got to work on them until you put body heat in them, breathe life into them.’”
Spending most of his boyhood in Great Falls, MT, Tim and his family owned horses and mules and spent many hours hunting, fishing and hiking through the Northern Rockies, where he encountered the North American wildlife that would become his inspiration. Tim says his early exposure to and appreciation for wildlife art came during family visits to the C.M. Russell Museum, right there in his hometown. At the time, though, his creative interests were centered on taxidermy, on which he focused for several years, learning animal anatomy and musculature, which eventually led him to sculpting.
Tim eventually attended Eastern Montana College (now Montana State University - Billings), where his interest began to shift away from taxidermy and toward painting and sculpture. But it was after graduation that he began to pursue an art career in earnest. Tim learned to paint and sculpt through classes, workshops and relationships with other artists, and it was those teachers, friends, and mentors who taught him underlying principles for all of his art.
“[They taught me] how drawing, sculpting, and painting are all based on the same philosophies. Drawing is basically the foundation of all the disciplines, and it taught me how to think and how to create pieces that have interest on many different levels,” Tim said. “I was very lucky just to know some of the right people and get a leg up. I guess I’m somewhat self-taught but not without a lot of help from a lot of artist friends.”
Although sculpting came more naturally to him, Tim says he has always loved painting as well. As a younger artist, he had to put aside painting to focus on sculpting, but in the last several years, Tim has picked up his paintbrush again. He says he gets inspiration for all of his art from his passion for animals and the outdoors. And in order to “breathe life” into his art, he exhaustively observes, researches, measures, videos, sketches, and photographs his potential subjects before creating his pieces.
“The more I can know about the animal, the more information I have when I go to sculpt it. My armature (metal framework) is based on the skeleton, the aluminum wires follow where the spine, the leg bones, and all that are,” he said. “I’ve got skeletons and skulls and everything I can get my hands on … I then construct the animal from all that stuff.”
Whether the end result is life-sized moose or a tiny pika, Tim said the process of creating a bronze sculpture is the same, and it can take many months. First, Tim creates the original sculpture out of clay over the aluminum armature. His workbench contains typical sculpting tools as well as some unexpected items, including leather, sponges, fleece, wood, wire, foam – anything to create texture and achieve his signature style.
“Your style is kind of like handwriting. You don’t really think about it, or you shouldn’t. It just happens. What I am thinking about is the play of light and trying to bring life into the clay. And the technique and all that, it just happens,” he said.
After Tim completes his sculpture, he takes it to the mold maker, who covers the clay in layers of a rubber substance to capture every tiny detail of the original. The mold maker then applies plaster, which holds it all in place. Once the plaster is dry, the clay is removed and Tim reuses it for a later project.
“I’ve got clay that I have been using for 20 years that’s been shaped into many, many pieces,” he said. “There are lots of different types of clays and different sculptors prefer different clays. I like a soft clay. The clay I use, I heat in a cabinet that has a baseboard heater in it, and it will heat to about 100 degrees, and then it’s really soft and pliable.”
Once the clay has been removed and goes back into the pot for reuse, the completed mold goes to a foundry where they first create a wax replica by pouring hot wax into the mold, turning it until the inside is fully coated, and pouring it out. They do this repeatedly until they get a layer of wax about ¼-inch thick. The wax form is then “chased” in an exacting process that fixes seam lines, bubbles, or other imperfections in the wax in order to create a perfect replication of the original clay sculpture.
Once satisfied with the quality of the wax replica, the foundry workers repeatedly dip it into a slurry and let it dry, creating a hard ceramic shell that can withstand the temperatures of molten bronze, a process which can take up to two weeks. The piece then goes into the burnout furnace and is heated to about 2000 degrees, and the wax runs out of the shell, creating a void where the wax had been. Molten bronze is poured into that void and once it has cooled, the ceramic shell is chipped off to reveal a bronze sculpture.
After the sculpture is cleaned up and receives Tim’s approval, the painstaking work of applying patina is the next step, and it’s what Tim calls “the hair pulling part.” It involves applying chemicals and heat to quickly age the bronze in the same way that might be naturally produced if the piece was left to oxidize over time. Once the patina is finished, the final step is a thin layer of protective wax and, for outdoor pieces, lacquer. Even that part takes thought and artistry, because waxes and lacquers come in a variety of types and colors. From mold creation to final finish, this process is repeated for every edition of every sculpture, which for a table top sculpture, could be as many as 24 editions.
“I actually cast a foundry proof, an artist’s proof. The very first one out is mine and I leave it at the foundry, and they have that to look at for the rest of the editions. And at the end of the editions, I keep it and take it home,” he said. “I go [to the foundry] every two to three months, and I approve all he metal before it gets [patinated] and I’m there for all the patinas, but a lot of the work gets done while I’m not there.”
Tim admits that while the sculptures are his own vision and creation, the mold fabricators, wax chasers, foundry workers, and those who apply the patina, are all critical to the process. They are highly skilled craftspeople with considerable artistic ability.
“They’re all artists, really. … You get guys that are really good at almost getting the texture while they’re welding. Same with the wax chasers. It’s not something you just hire somebody off the street,” he said. “Learning how to do the patinas and do them really well? Some people have a real knack for it, but boy, it’s hard.”
At any given point, Tim has at least two sculptures and four or five paintings in progress in his studio. When he runs into creative block, he moves onto another piece and then circles back with a fresh perspective. And while he is always creating, he finds that the biggest challenge to being a working artist is time.
“There is never enough time. I have always found that if I just focus on doing good work, the marketing seems to take care of itself, but I always feel like I’m up against the deadline,” he said. “I’ve got a million ideas and I need another hundred years of life to do them. I think you’d find a lot of artists would say that they just wish they had more time to get more done.”
Tim has been associated with Montana Trails Gallery in some capacity since the 1990s, and his work has always been a wonderful complement to the other works in the gallery. Sydney Weeks, MTG assistant gallery director, said serious western art collectors, art enthusiasts, and passersby all love Tim’s work because it is both awe inspiring and moving.
“People spend a lot of time looking at and walking around Tim’s sculptures to see them from every angle,” said Sydney. “They are fascinated by the process and Tim’s ability to make his creations feel so lifelike.”
Tim says these emotional reactions are meaningful to him because they also serve to make people aware of where and how these animals exist and how important it is to understand their behaviors and preserve their habitats.
“I see wildlife and wild places enriching my life, and I’d like to see those areas preserved,” he said. “I’m not going to paint a painting of a bulldozer coming down through the timber or something. That’s just not me. I would rather [create] it beautifully and then have people fall in love with it.”
Because of this underlying passion for preserving wildlife and wild places, Tim’s bronze sculptures are not his only enduring legacy. His works will continue to inspire love and appreciation for animals on all continents and the continued conservation of their habitat.
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