Art as process, art as prayer
The antler creations of Craig Krzycki
By Sarah Gianelli EBS Associate Editor
Craig Krzycki’s connection to the antlers elk, deer and moose shed each spring runs deep. Discovering these great, graceful bones on the forest floor is not simply a means to an end for the artist, but rather a spiritual experience that he treats with the utmost reverence.
Up a windy gravel drive in the heart of Gallatin Canyon, the leafy, sun-dappled landscape, once part of a lettuce plantation and the place Krzycki has called home for 17 years, is lovingly dressed in testament to his obsession. Antlers adorn his woodpile, dangle in the limbs of trees, form arbors, and are affixed to the side of his single-wide trailer. The trunk of one tree is wrapped entirely within the pointed embrace of antlers bleached white by the sun in the hopes that one day he will witness the wood and bone become one.
He dislodges an antler from a shady area of fencing and presents it like an offering. This one, and two storage sheds filled with hundreds more, have been deemed too beautiful to “put through the band saw,” Krzycki said.
“I think anyone that has the addiction to find sheds has their collection,” Krzycki said in his gentle, high-pitched voice. “Men have their bone pile. There’s a memory from finding that horn—who you were with, the dog you were with, the 10 inches of snow that surprised you that day. That antler brings you back to that moment, that adventure, that trip. Do you want to hold onto those memories or do you want to sell them?”
Weighing 10 pounds and spanning nearly 5 feet, it’s difficult to imagine an elk upholding not just one, but two antlers of this size, no matter how strong the animal’s neck. It’s easier to imagine the relief the elk must’ve felt upon them falling to the earth.
He takes me through the different parts of the antler starting at the burr, where it detached from the pedicle, and traces a path to the brow tine—or first fork off the main beam and the consecutive points. The fourth point is often called a dagger or sword, and the sixth is referred to as a back scratcher when it reaches a certain size.
“You can’t duplicate seeing something like this in nature, what it does to your insides,” Krzycki said, fondling the burr. “The feeling of finding one is ecstasy and then to find the other one, the match set…There’s a connection between you and Mother Nature and that animal when you find [a shed] on the ground and you’re the first one to smell it, touch it.”
Krzycki described the smell of a freshly shed antler as a combination of sap from rubbing on trees and something indescribable that is especially pungent at the burr, although it only lasts a matter of weeks.
“I can’t compare it to any kind of smell,” Krzycki said. “Maybe that’s part of the addiction.”
Krzycki reserved the more picturesque structure on the property for his studio. To the best of his knowledge, the 1920s log and mortar cabin was originally built at the Twin Cabins Trailhead and restacked at its current location at some point. His meticulously organized workshop comes as somewhat of a surprise—tools and materials are lined up like little soldiers hanging from the walls or tucked away tidily in little boxes.
Here, on a hide-covered chair next to an antique wood-burning stove, Krzycki makes everything from $1 antler buttons to $5,000 custom sculptures that incorporate other materials such as metal and wood. Other wares include salt and pepper sets, key chains, belt buckles, drawer pulls, cribbage boards, and antler-handled knives. Kryzcki has sold his antler creations at the Big Sky Farmer’s Market since its inception nearly a decade ago.
An archery and rifle big game hunting guide for more than 20 years, Krzycki would fill up his backpack with sheds, until he started filling actual sheds with his findings and decided to experiment with making gifts out them.
Krzycki said when he first started collecting antlers, most of it was being shipped to Asia for its reputation as an aphrodisiac. With a chuckle, Krzycki said rumor has it the demand plummeted when Viagra emerged onto the market.
Today the big demand is for antler dog chews. Krzycki makes dog chews out of his antler scraps and sells them in various Big Sky businesses but is visibly conflicted about using them for this purpose.
According to Krzycki, finding antler sheds has become increasingly competitive. He said the Gallatin Valley elk population has declined by 75 percent and the number of people looking for them has grown tenfold, largely due to their trendiness as decor.
“But,” he said, circling a finger vaguely around his head, “I still have my secret spots.”
Krzycki explained how he reconciles his overwhelming respect for the life cycles of big game and the many years he spent working as a hunting guide.
“It’s one of the deepest things you can experience,” he said. “I have experienced so many human emotions when somebody harvests an animal and to be able to share that with them is so powerful. I’ve seen grown men cry; it’s deep, man. For me, it’s about feeding myself organically and respecting that animal. I always take time to pray and be thankful for being part of that circle.”