Outdoorsman and sculptor Tim Shinabarger debuts nine new bronze works at a major exhibition at the Legacy Gallery in Jackson.
There’s an old saying that goes, “Never trust a skinny cook.” Well, never trust a wildlife artist who can’t camp among the animals for a few nights. Or months. Going by that metric alone, Tim Shinabarger is as serious as wildlife artists come. Although the sculptor is quite at home trekking through the forests and fields of Montana, he has been laying low in the studio for the last 15 months while preparing for a new solo exhibition, the likes of which he’s never undertaken before, one that will feature nine brand-new bronzes. The new pieces, like much of his work, are informed by his time outdoors among the elements, landscapes and the animals, from which he draws much of his inspiration. Like Carl Rungius and Philip R. Goodwin before him, camping, hunting, fishing, canoeing, hiking and living off the land are not just a favorite pastimes—they represent a way of life.
“The wilderness is key to who I am. I don’t know where one starts and the other stops because it’s so meshed together into a lifestyle, one that brings authenticity and truth to the work,” Shinabarger says. “I can tell right away if a sculpture was based on a wild animal or a zoo animal. Animals in zoos have a different body language—it comes down to a wild attitude. Witnessing animals firsthand in the wild is everything to a wildlife sculptor.”
Shinabarger will be showing his new bronze works at a solo exhibition, Forever Wild, on September 14 at the Legacy Gallery in Jackson, Wyoming. The show opens with a reception, during which all nine new bronzes will be available, as well as a select few pieces from
sold-out editions of older works. Some of the works will be sold by draw during the opening night reception.
For the artist, the buildup for a show of this caliber required months of preparation and more than a year of consistent studio time, all of which meant he would have to turn down other shows, including several significant museum exhibitions. “I just had to bury myself in the studio. It was fun, though, to have that many pieces going all at once. I would work on one and if it got stale I could rotate it out and work on another one with a fresh eye. It was an energizing way to work,” he says from his Billings, Montana, studio. “One thing people don’t often realize with bronzes is how much work goes into each piece. I spent a lot of time just in the shop building bases, putting together pipes and creating armatures. Some of the more complex pieces needed an overhead drop-down support, and all that takes time to create and put together. And all that is not even counting the foundry time after the sculpture is done. It’s all very time consuming, especially for 11 new pieces, nine of which will be in the show.” All of this work tends to fill an artist’s days and weeks quite quickly, but Shinabarger still found time to duck out and appreciate the “land and all the critters.” Places in and around Billings are not only great spots to find inspiration, they are also home to the artist, who has spent all of his life in Montana—he was born in Great Falls, and has lived in Bozeman and Gardiner before settling in Billings. These Montana settings had a profound impact on his development as an artist, particularly because of another famous Montana sculptor.
“Back when I was growing up in the mid1970s, Charlie Russell’s work was everywhere. If you went to a restaurant and ordered something it was served on a Charlie Russell placemat. I was surrounded by Russell. At age 6, 7 and 8, in that range, my parents took me to the Russell Museum and I could see his studio and home. My folks had even known people that had known him, and some of them had originals on their walls at home,” Shinabarger says. “I was enthralled looking at his work in museums. I remember telling myself I’ll never be able to afford one of his works, so I’ll just make my own. Russell planted the seed.”
Shinabarger would go on to study painting and sculpting in college, even taking evening art classes, but would graduate with a business degree. It was only later that he was put in touch with some professional artists. His dad was friends with landscape painter Bob Barlow, and Barlow was well connected with artists like Clyde Aspevig, Skip Whitcomb and Hollis Williford. These connections led to others, including some with the Cowboy Artists of America, artists such as Gary Carter. “But it was Hollis who really took me under his wing. He used to teach an extensive workshop and it went all week. The only day off you got was on Sunday and even then you had homework. It was a tough course but I learned a lot and it had a huge impact on my career,” Shinabarger says. “What impressed me about Hollis was that he did all three: drawing, sculpting and paintings. And he was able to convey in me his thought process. That it doesn’t matter what medium you were working in because your thought process would dictate everything.”
By 1990 he was showing in Bozeman,
where he was living at the time after college, and gradually his work started to mature. It was around this time that his relationship with nature was also deepening and widening: in the Custer National Forest he was on a rapid response helitack crew, a self-sufficient team of firefighters that were transported to fires by helicopters; he was a wilderness ranger in Yellowstone; and later a field guide for hunting, fishing and adventure-bound clients.
“When I was on the helitack crew, it was something else. We were in a really hot district and it was nothing at all to have 20 fires a night. In 1988 we had more than 500 fires the whole summer. There were 15 of us and we’d fly out in helicopters and just fight fires in these very hot areas,” Shinabarger says. “When I was a wilderness ranger I would wander around the backcountry and make sure trails were clear and talk to people about wilderness ethics. It was fun because I was just a wandering naturist making public contacts. I would also work a lot with horses and mules. Then, when I was working with outfitters, it was putting me in touch with people who were excited about my
work. These were people who liked the kind of work already, so they would just buy pieces directly from me. It meshed really well.”
All of this time outdoors, which also included personal camping trips with his wife and friends, led to a profound and meaningful relationship with the natural world, one that he would allow to permeate through to his artwork, much of which featured animals he had encountered, places he had visited or involved emotional experiences that spoke to him. “Every day out there is an inspiration,” he adds.
Sculptor Tim Cherry, who’s friends with Shinabarger, says the artist takes his time in nature very seriously and enjoys incorporating it into his work. “Everything he does is based on nature and his experiences. And his work has a lot of heart for that reason. You can see it in every gesture, each one is spot on. Tim is out there every day observing and being a part of nature, it’s the heart and soul of his work,” Cherry says, adding that his new exhibition will be well worth the wait. “For Tim to put aside many of his regular obligations for nearly two years just to concentrate on these new works, that’s an amazing level of commitment for these new pieces. He’s worked really hard, and it’s going to be dynamite. It’s going to knock your socks off. And it couldn’t happen to a better person: he’s a tremendous guy, a tremendous artist and a tremendous friend who deserves every accolade he’s going to get.”
Works in the Legacy show include a number of new deer and elk pieces such as Wapiti and Out of the North, both of which show animals striding magnificently. In Lined Out and Leavin’, Shinabarger shows seven elk figures on a ridgeline, which cuts a magnificent silhouette as each animal holds a different pose. “That was one that was exciting simply because of the silhouettes, and the gestures they were all making were fun to rough in,” Shinabarger says. “This was also a piece that took a lot of time to build and get right. A lot of thought went into the armature as I played with each piece to make sure everything worked as a whole.”
Other works include The Apparition, a wallmounted piece of a cougar on two separate tree
limbs, and Along the Hoback, another wallmounted piece, this one of a mountain man on horseback ascending a narrow trail with a packhorse. “Mountain men were some of my earliest works before my No. 1 love, which is wildlife. I just love the exploration and history of these subjects. I love to think about them in these wild areas with unobstructed 60-mile views of the mountains and, at one point, with a million buffalo below them. They were seeing the land in its pristine state. I love escaping back to that time,” he says, adding that in his research he found many myths about early American mountain men. “One myth is the beards they all wore. There is lots of documentation of shaving kits being sent out West. These men, many in their 20s, were shaving more often than we think. They were also around Indian women, and they thought the men were animals with their beards. Another myth is the coyote skin hats they are often shown wearing. I’ve been trapping in Alaska and I’ve worn a fur cap. Unless it’s 20 below it’s just too hot for a fur cap.”
As the exhibition grows closer, Shinabarger has found himself in the studio less as works migrate to the foundry, where he is supervising the casting of the first editions. He’s also excited to once again return to the wild, where he can begin to plan his next pieces. He also hopes to begin painting more.
“I always admired Hollis because he drew, he painted and he sculpted. His philosophy was that clay, paint, charcoal, it’s all the same,” he says. “One of my favorite artists of all time is John Singer Sargent. His work just blows me away because he found lots of ways to apply the medium to create an illusion. In any given painting he could have applied 20 different techniques. I love that, coming up with different forms of calligraphy to create something. Whatever you use, though, you have to breathe life into it, breathe a soul into it.”
Lined Out and Leavin’, bronze, ed. of 18, 16½ x 57½ x 10”
Tim Shinabarger in Montana in 2017.
Tim Shinabarger in his Montana studio with his new work.
Out of the North, bronze, ed. of 24, 20 x 20½ x 10”
The Apparition, clay for bronze, ed. of 24, 40 x 22 x 13”
Muley, bronze, ed. of 30, 20 x 9 x 7½”