Montana artist — and former taxidermist — Tim Shinabarger turned to sculpture after a snowmobile accident confined him to bed.
“Wilderness and wildlife — I don’t know where one stops and the other starts,” Tim Shinabarger says, looking out the large windows of his studio in Montana to the three mountain ranges beyond.
A well-known wildlife sculptor, Shinabarger is renowned for capturing the subtleties of his animal subjects in texture and form. Each sculpture recounts a scene that the artist has witnessed in the wild, and each evokes a sense of movement and drama. “You have to immerse yourself in the backcountry and spend time learning to feel the rhythm of the forest and animals. That’s when you notice subtle details,” he says.
Born in Great Falls, Montana, Shinabarger came by his love of nature at a young age. When he was 13, his father took him on his first pack trip into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. There the teen observed elk, moose, grizzly bears, and small animals in their habitat. Enthralled by what he saw, Shinabarger knew that his future would in some way intersect with the rugged outdoors.
His first pursuit wasn’t art, however, but taxidermy — which proved an important foundation for understanding animal anatomy. The creative turning point came when, as a freshman on a trip in the remote Absarokas, his snowmobile broke through thin ice on the Boulder River and he suffered severe frostbite to his feet. Confined to bed for weeks, Shinabarger beat the boredom by experimenting with sculpting.
He started taking art courses in college and spent summers working as a ranger in the Custer and Gallatin national forests north of Yellowstone. After graduation, he worked as a guide for an outfitter while refining his artistic skills. Then, as demand for his bronzes grew, he began sculpting full time.
Though no longer guiding, Shinabarger regularly embarks on long excursions into the wilderness to observe animals in their environment. “I’ve seen a grizzly rubbing its back on a tree,” he says. “I’ve seen that moment. I try to put that animal’s soul into a piece of clay.”
The artist has traveled all over the West in his quest for similarly inspired moments. Last year he ventured to Zambia, in the southern part of Africa, where he spent more than a month studying lions, sable, Cape buffalo, and other indigenous species. The experience, he says, was extraordinary.
Back in his studio in Montana, Shinabarger puts the final touches on a clay study of two lions atop a rock outcropping. The female is lying down, looking contentedly at her surroundings; the male stands majestically behind her. The piece will be part of a new series of sculptures Shinabarger will unveil in September at his one-man show at The Legacy Gallery in Jackson, Wyoming. The show will include a mix of North American animals and African wildlife.
“I’m just scratching the surface on African animals,” Shinabarger says. “Africa is made for art.”
From the August/September 2013 issue.