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Cowboys & Indians: Art Gallery/Sculpture

For inspiration, wildlife sculptor Sherry Salari Sander doesn’t have to go far.  “We’ve had snow.  It’s so gorgeous,” she says between sips of green tea.  “I’m sitting in my studio with this big expansive glass all around me and the pond is frozen over and the animals are amazing.  All the years I’ve lived here I never forget how lucky I am.”

Lucky means being situated on 300 acres near the town of Kalispell in northwest Montana, not far from the Canadian border, with a 1,250-foot studio with windows on three sides that bring the outside in.  “I can look out right now and there are wild turkeys out there,” she says.  “Deer come here.  It’s a safe haven and animals instinctively know they’re safe.  I’ve done lots of sculpture based on what I’ve seen on my own property.”

An award-winning bronze sculptor, Sander manages to not just accurately represent the various animals she’s seen, but also to capture them midaction, like a movie stopped on pause, yet with all the energy of the moment intact.  Two foxes playing, romping and wrestling a lot like family dogs.  Cougars perched on a ledge, before taking an athletic leap.  A mother grizzly bear zealously protecting her cubs from another bear.  A pair of swans, one hunkered down, the other spreading its wings.

The sculptures are so evocative of the wild, you can almost hear the sound that accompanied the moment.

“My gift is I can visualize and I can inspire (the image),” Sander says.  “I don’t really draw very well, but I draw in clay.”

When Sander was in her mid-20s, she worked on a sightseeing boat on Two Medicine Lake in the eastern part of Glacier Park, which allowed her to observe the native wildlife-bighorn sheep, bears, moose, and high-country birds-firsthand.  She’d spend hours looking at the animals in their natural habitat, memorizing the shapes and proportions of not just the breed but of particular individual animals.  Their movements and expressions made indelible impressions.

As Sander works the clay onto her armature, those impressions start to take form.  Describing ON THE ROOF, a piece that depicts mountain goats atop a “roof” of the Rocky Mountain range, she remembers the excitement of observing goats in their environment: “I experienced seeing this magnificent animal with these beautiful horns.  This is what I try to take to my sculpture .”

Yet Sander see her work not as realistic representations but more as composites of the animals she’s observed, distillations of form that are particular to the breed, cast in a setting or situation that’s not unlike something that might be real.  “I don’t think of myself as a representational artist,” she says.  “I think of my work as being more impressionistic.  I think of my sculptures as abstract forms.”

For the past 44 years, she’s been making bronze sculptures, mostly of animals, and overseeing casting at the foundry 4 miles from her house.  She’s there every day, when she’s not in the studio creating a new piece or writing a poem to go with one she’s just finished.

“Why do I keep making sculptures?  I think it’s so ingrained in who I am,” she says.  “I think I do this because I love these animals.  I just love them.  I love it here, and I’m still working to provide a sanctuary for these animals.  Doing these sculptures is an extension of my caring about them so much.”

—Ellise Pierce