Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Capturing the Wyoming spirit in bronze

On the mantle above the fireplace in French Creek Saloon is a beautiful little bronze called ‘Headed to Paradise’. Sculpted by local artist D. Michael Thomas, this intricate depiction of a cowboy riding his horse down a hill, carrying a guitar, is modelled on Paradise Ranch’s Thursday night entertainer, Jim Niner, who has cowboyed most of his life in these parts and is a well known picker and singer. 
Standing around 12 inches high, this piece is for sale for $2,500 - a bargain at twice the price, considering the sculptor is fast becoming one of the biggest names in Western art. 

                                ('Headed to Paradise, by D. Michael Thomas)

D Michael Thomas - Mike to his friends - is best known for his over-lifesized statue of singing rodeo star Chris LeDoux, located in a park in the town of Kaycee, about an hour south of Buffalo. A fantastic study of a buckjumper and rider in furious motion, this memorial to the departed local hero has really put Mike on the artistic map, giving him the celebrity status - in Wyoming at least - that he deserves.
Wyoming born and bred, with a lifetime of ranching experience, Mike lives on the far side of Buffalo, working and sculpting out of an amazing barn/studio that he built himself. I was privileged enough to visit him at work yesterday, with this humble, unassuming man taking the time to show me around, explain the processes of bronze casting and even take me through his gorgeous home, a veritable museum with precious pieces of western memorabilia and art, including works by his mother, an accomplished oil painter during the 1960s.

                                        (Mike in his studio)

Although he grew up in an artistic environment, Mike has had no formal art training. “When I was at college I had a buddy who was messing around with sculpture. I thought, gosh, I’d like to give that a try,” he says. “I learned it all the hard way. I don’t know if that’s the good way. But everyone says heck, you won’t want to go to art school, that will just screw you up.”
It wasn’t until 1993, however, that Mike took up sculpting full time. He was working at the Buffalo feed store at the time when he was offered his first big commission - a three-quarter sized statue of a cattle rustler, which now stands in a park opposite the bank on Main Street in Buffalo. 

                        (Mike's first major commission in Main Street, Buffalo)

“I had to quit my real job to do that,” he says. “That was kind of a spooky little jump to leave the day job. I thought if this doesn’t work I can always go and find another one. And knock on wood, I haven’t looked back.”
The Buffalo public sculpture not only gave Mike the incentive to follow his dream, but also provided him with a comfortable income for the first time. “Sheesh, I made more in that one sculpture than I would have in three years working in the feed store,” he laughs. “I figured I had three years to get my act together. I wasn’t in any galleries, no one knew me, so I started going to art shows. Then galleries contacted me and started to put stuff in there, and then they started selling. Every day was Christmas, almost. When times were good, it was amazing!”
Mike now commands up to six figures for his life-sized statues, which can take up to four years to complete. That’s working every day, often up to 10 hours a day - whatever is required. On some pieces, he needs to walk away from it to figure out what needs changing; or sometimes simply get out and gain inspiration from what’s around him.
“I have used my own horses as models, when I get stuck on a certain part of the anatomy,” he says. “ Lot of times the stifle joint baffles me sometimes, how that goes forward or back. So I get them out there in a round pen and get them galloping or whatever position I’m in, just to see that muscle group and how it reacts and how bulbous it gets, or how many lines come through it because it’s so stretched out. I do that quite often.”

A master of realism, Mike’s biggest influence is life on the land - the people and animals that he has spent a lifetime studying. “I guess you sculpt what you know,” he tells me. “If I went out to sculpt a whale or something, I wouldn’t have any interest and it would look pretty bad. But I’m interested in our history, interested in the ranching community myself, because that’s how I was raised.”
“When you know that subject you don’t need a tremendous amount of reference material. You can kind of picture it in your mind how that horse should be, how that human would be riding that horse. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing - because it’s what I’m familiar with.”
Historical subjects, on the other hand, require an intense amount of research to ensure accuracy. For instance, the Cavalry used to change tack every two years - so if Mike is sculpting a horse during the 1874 Battle of Little Big Horn, he has to make sure the tack is correct, down to the shape of the buckles. “If you’re doing something historical, you have to have your stuff together or you’ll get called out.”

                              ('When the Dust Settles' by D. Michael Thomas)
Mike’s latest project is a study of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He’s still perfecting the small sculpture, with the aim to eventually make a lifesized version which will be placed outside Buffalo courthouse. “They’ll be facing the courthouse, trying to figure out how to rob it,” he says. But it’s still a work in progress - Mike is still not happy with Butch’s facial expressions, and eventually wants to make him look like he’s talking out of the side of his mouth.

                                      (Unfinished study of Butch and Sundance)
The devil, of course, is in the detail - and Mike’s eye for subtle movements and facial expressions is what make his pieces so outstanding. The way the wind catches the tail of the horse, the posture of the rider in the saddle - you can almost see the dirt on the cowboy’s jacket, the sweat on his brow. Each and every piece is a master study of Wyoming culture - from a man who knows it so intimately, and captures every nuance of life on the land. 

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