Doug Robinson: Sculptor Stephen Kesler combines passions for art and animals

Published: Sunday, July 6 2014 9:00 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — When the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium opened in March, the stunning sculpture of a 40-foot whale shark swimming through the lobby almost stole the show from the real live sharks on the premises. In May, Hogle Zoo opened its new African Savanna exhibit, and once again visitors were arrested by the sight of towering sculptures, this time life-size giraffes.

The statues at both venues have one thing in common: They are the work of Stephen Kesler, a 39-year-old graphic artist and former punk-band guitarist who had never sculpted until four years ago.

For his day job, Kesler designs websites, logos and labels on a computer, among other things. His first sculpture was 4 inches tall. The three giraffe sculptures are 12, 17 and 18 feet. The whale sculpture is accompanied by three manta rays ranging from 8 to 14 feet.

That the artist has been sculpting only a few years and has had little formal training makes his work all the more remarkable. That he has been able to secure such rare and coveted projects in the fine arts world is no less remarkable, if not serendipitous.

“I know I’m lucky I got such amazing projects and that there are sculptors who have twice the talent and haven’t gotten the same breaks,” he says. “I’m humble about that — and slightly embarrassed.”

Kesler, who made a career of working in the two-dimensional cyber art world, has made a quick transition to the 3D, hands-on world of sculpture. Manipulating images on a computer screen is one thing; manipulating clay is another.

Kesler was always drawn to art. A disinterested student at Cottonwood High School, the only classes he could force himself to attend were music and art — he liked to draw and play the guitar. He is the youngest of six children and most of his brothers are artistic — Matt is a master artist for Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, and Phil was a graphic designer before he died of cancer four years ago; his brother Dan is an illustrator.

After high school, Kesler was employed by a marketing company that provided on-the-job training for learning the technical side of graphic art — Photoshop, illustration, print layout, Web design, etc. The experience led to a graphic art career, largely in branding, marketing, logos and Web design, and full-time jobs with Rastar and, currently, Snap Lock, while also doing freelance graphics on the side and playing music. He played guitar in a band for 15 years — first hard-core punk and then instrumental — playing gigs around the state. He gave it up a decade ago because “I had been doing it so long I got tired of it.”

He grew bored with the routine of his graphics career, as well, and was looking for something more artistically when he stumbled into the work of sculptor Ron Mueck on the Internet. Intrigued, he asked Matt what clay and tools a beginner sculptor would need and put his recommendations on a Christmas wish list in 2009.

Santa (actually his mother-in-law) granted his wish and two months later he began his first piece. “From there it has never stopped,” Kesler says. “I don’t think there’s been a day since then that I haven’t sculpted. It was true love and purpose from then on.”

An avid motorcyclist, he takes clay on extended tours and on family vacations.

He learned sculpting techniques online — how to create the look of skin and wrinkles and how to build the inner supporting structure of a sculpture. His first piece was an African elephant a few inches tall.

He moved quickly to new projects — a small bust of a friend and the rendering of a dog. When Phil died, Kesler decided to sculpt his brother’s likeness as a gift to his family.

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