Immortalizing wildlife in bronze

By Sarah Gianelli EBS Senior Editor

BOZEMAN – In addition to observing wildlife, studying anatomy books, sketching and taking photographs, Bozeman-area sculptor Ott Jones also keeps a “roadkill freezer” for reference. It’s currently inhabited by game birds and a fox, although he’s been known to have a resident coyote from time to time.

“It’s great research between observing in the wild and using a dead animal,” he said, explaining that the corpses are especially helpful for rendering details like feathers, feet or a beak. “Of course they get quite ripe, so I can’t keep them a long time.”

That said, he prefers to work from live models whenever possible, and has corralled dogs, chipmunks, roosters and turkeys for extended sessions.

Jones focuses on the details prior to constructing the original clay mold, so that they inform his bronze sculptures with accuracy, but don’t necessarily show up in the finished result.

“If you don’t have your subject’s anatomy right, your whole sculpture is going to be off,” he said.

However, Jones abides by the “less is more” aesthetic.

“I want viewers to look and to really enjoy the form and the composition and not get tied up in every feather or hair,” he said. “Detail in certain areas is crucial—faces, eyes, the fins on a fish, antlers—but you don’t have to have every hair on an elk [defined] for it to be a nice sculpture.”

Because his pieces are built on a foundation of anatomical accuracy they ring true, but aesthetically lean toward the impressionistic, his fingerprints visible in many of his finished bronzes.

“Art is a very subjective field and that’s the nice thing about painters and sculptors … our techniques and philosophies are all unique,” he said. “Some are entirely abstract, some are very tightly detailed. There’s no right or wrong—it’s all good in that realm of creativity.”

The artist starts with a mental picture of how he wants to present his subject and creates a maquette—a very rough, loose study in clay. Once he creates another, more perfected sculpture, he sends it to a foundry in Livingston or Belgrade where it’s turned into bronze through an involved eight-step process.

Jones traces his love of wildlife and sporting game back to his childhood in Spokane, Washington, where some of his fondest memories are hunting and fishing with his father. He first started sculpting wildlife in third grade.

“My mom would find all these little balls of wax in the carpet, but she was very understanding,” he said.

Despite his parents’ support of his artistic tendencies, Jones pursued an education in college with an eye toward pre-med. But, he said, when he was supposed to be in the library studying, he was working on his art.

Upon graduation, Jones got a job as a fishing guide in Iliamna, Alaska. He would guide during the day—observing the arctic caribou, fox and birds of the tundra—and sculpt at night.

His boss allowed him to display his bronzes in Iliamna’s Rainbow King Lodge, which is how he began to build a customer base for his work, even after he went on to work as a welder’s helper on an oil rig in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

While the creation of a single sculpture might take two to four months, Jones said each piece is really the culmination of decades of experience and observation.

“It really takes a lifetime to complete a piece,” he said. “It’s my lifetime of working in the field, observing animals, research in the field, and trying to perfect my technique.”

A major highlight of Jones’ career is having one of his pieces in Queen Elizabeth II’s vacation home in Sandringham, England.

One of his friends buys Labrador puppies from the royal kennels and commissioned Jones to make a sculpture for the queen. “Birth of the Labrador” depicts cod fishermen off the Newfoundland coast in the 1600s, and Labradors that were first used to retrieve cod from the sea that had gotten off their hooks.

Jones also has a fly fisherman and Labrador sculpture in the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, and a monument of mountain man Jim Bridger at the Bozeman Chamber of Commerce. His work can also be found locally at Rocky Mountain Rug Gallery in Bozeman and Creighton Block Gallery in Big Sky.

“I want to paint animals in a desirable and honorable way,” Jones said. “But the other important satisfaction for me is how happy the client is with their piece. It may remind them of a special experience they had or a place they visited … [or] if I patina a hunting dog sculpture to look like their dog it can memorialize their companion forever.”

Visit ottjones.com to see more of the artist’s work.