Animal attraction: Giant wildlife sculptures come to Powell Gardens

06/15/2014 7:00 AM

06/15/2014 8:21 PM

Our dogs and cats exhibit personality and mood. Of that, pet owners are certain. But what about wildlife and farm animals?

Sculptor Dan Ostermiller has been around animals his whole life, and he has no trouble recognizing temperament in all types of creatures: bears, bison, elephants, deer, pigs, chickens and …

Rabbits. In the early 1990s, Marjorie Powell Allen bought a hulking Ostermiller bronze for Powell Gardens — two ample, cozied-up, contented rabbits titled “Close Quarters.” Why? Allen, a botanical garden founder, said the piece “made me smile.”

Now the gardens are dotted with 26 more big bronzes by Ostermiller in a summer exhibit called “Gardens Gone Wild.” It’s the first such assembly of the popular wildlife sculptor’s work, and he loves how each has been placed in nine garden “habitats.”

“You put so much thought into this,” Ostermiller told Powell Gardens’ staff recently on his first tour of the exhibit, which runs through early October. “It’s really inspiring.”

Eric Tschanz, Powell Gardens’ president, drove the tour cart past “Rearing Elephant” and declared it the likely star of the exhibit. It’s an Asian elephant, 12 feet tall on its back legs, intermittently spraying water skyward from its extended trunk — a kid magnet for sure.

Also: more rabbits, deer, “Bella” the sow, a bullfrog and a 5-foot-tall hen, “Priscilla.” She’s a Cochin, inspired by a pet chicken at Ostermiller’s studio in Loveland, Colo. “Le Toad” sits, scowling, near Powell’s island garden.

The 57-year-old Ostermiller is renowned particularly for his bears, and the exhibit features several, including a bear that has rolled itself in a ball, two wrestling, rollicking grizzlies and another bear spread out for a nap.

“The way I look at it, it’s not a sculpture of a bear, it’s a sculpture of my bear, my interpretation of a bear,” he said.

Ostermiller captures some animals in their natural behaviors — “Preening Whitetail” is bending its head back to groom, and “High and Dry” is an Asian elephant stretching for a drink but not quite reaching its goal, one back foot off the ground. He watched just such a scene at the Denver Zoo.

A few of the sculptor’s subjects appear almost posed, and many are downright playful. His works are on display at several museums, including the Denver Art Museum, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyo.

“They each possess a lot of me in them,” he said. “And I like to have fun.”

On a recent sunny, humid day, garden visitors Paul Gerling of Shawnee and his three grandchildren found the fun of the spraying elephant, situated at Powell’s fountain garden.

“When the water shoots from his trunk, I’ll take your picture,” Gerling told the youngsters. He positioned Kelsie and Katie Lemon, 12-year-old twins, and their 7-year-old brother, Carson, next to “Rearing Elephant.”

Soon all three kids were soaked — “That’s why I have towels in the car,” Gerling said — and Carson stepped out of the spray long enough to report that his favorite sculpture was the eagle on the visitor center deck.

That would be “American Gold,” Ostermiller’s in-flight eagle and a bit of an engineering challenge: Only the tip of one wing is attached to its base.

“I loved the eagle,” Carson said. “It was just really cool.”

Tschanz said the garden’s informality and large scale were a good fit for the collection. The fit was made even better, he said, by tying the wildlife sculptures to habitats and offering related fauna and flora information.

Near “Rearing Elephant,” guests are invited to identify tropical and native plants “inspired by elephants,” including elephant’s foot, elephant bush and elephant ears.

Behind the “Boys Will Be Boys” sculpture of the two rollicking bears, garden staff built a bear den of earth and logs that visitors can climb in and around. Nearby is a plaque about hibernation.

“It’s a family exhibit, whether you’re into nature or art,” Tschanz said.

Ostermiller acknowledged that the logistics of assembling and staging so many large sculptures seemed daunting at first.

In fact, the project took a year to plan and pull off. Many of the pieces were borrowed from collectors across the country and sent for cleaning to Loveland or to Nedra Matteucci Galleries in Santa Fe, N.M., which represents Ostermiller. The sculptures were shipped to Kansas City on open-sided trucks, creating a circus-train appearance that was an attention-getter on the highway.

Ostermiller has been sculpting since the late 1970s and settled in Loveland, a locus for sculpture because of its casting foundries. His studio, which has 20-foot ceilings for his monumental works, is a three-building affair totaling 14,000 square feet.

The studio, on a couple of acres downtown, features gardens and enough space for animals like chickens, rabbits and frogs to hang out. One of his sculptures at Powell, a sleeping bear called “Indigo’s Dream,” was inspired not only by his wildlife observations but by his Irish wolfhound, Indigo, who liked to sprawl on the floor to get cool.

“Indigo was dreaming of a bear,” he said.

The studio also features a kitchen for his serious cooking hobby, which tends toward Italian fare and meat curing. His vocation and avocation seem to complement each other.

“I like to cook while I sculpt,” he said.

Ostermiller never considered other subjects for his art. He grew up in Cheyenne, Wyo., around his father’s taxidermy business. But he found little self-expression in taxidermy, and he left for Texas to learn sculpting.

“It was always animals. That’s just what I know best,” Ostermiller said. “My father said, ‘You’ll be back.’ That was probably the best thing he could have said to me. That’s the ultimate challenge.”

Ostermiller found inspiration in travel — around the region and in Europe and Africa, observing wildlife and taking pictures — and in the work of other sculptors, including the rounded figures of Francisco Zuniga.

“I never thought there was something else I should be doing,” Ostermiller said. “When I set out on this path, I never looked back.”

To reach Edward M. Eveld, call 816-234-4442 or send email to eeveld@kcstar.com.

‘Gardens Gone Wild: An Animal Art Adventure’

What: An exhibition of 26 bronze works by wildlife sculptor Dan Ostermiller

When: Through Oct. 5.

Where: Powell Gardens, 1609 N.W. U.S. 50, Kingsville, Mo.

Admission information: www.powellgardens.org, 816-697-2600

Related events at the gardens

6-9 p.m. Friday: “Creatures of the Night: An Evening for Families” focuses on the habits of frogs and other wetland animals, with a visit from Animal Wonders, animal educators, who will present other nocturnal creatures. Go to www.powellgardens.org/creatures for ticket information.

10 a.m. July 19: Martin City Jr. children’s theater makes its first appearance at the gardens with a cast of animal characters.

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