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

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

Struggling with facial anatomy and proportion, he looked online and found a mentor in Mike Call, who was teaching classes at the Bountiful Art Center. “I took a full-size bust of Phil to class,” recalls Kesler. “I was pretty off. I started over on a full-size bust of Phil, using Mike to get the anatomy right and to learn how to look at different photos to get it right.” He failed in the second attempt, as well, and started over again. He spent a year on the project before he was able to complete the project to his satisfaction and present it to his family.

“Mike was a huge turning point for me,” says Kesler.

He turned next to a self-portrait and then a humorous, limited-edition, faus-taxidermy bear head with antlers, which led to his first sale in 2011.

Inevitably, Kesler’s art reflected his passion for animal life, which becomes obvious the first time you meet him. Much of his body is covered by tattoos of sea life — manta rays on his back, a whale and squid doing battle on his leg, a shark on his right arm, an octopus on his chest. Mako and hammerhead shark sculptures hang in his house. For years he has contributed artwork to help various animal causes, namely Save the Elephants Foundation, Sea Shepherds Conservation Society and the local aquarium and zoo.

He met Brent Andersen, the owner and founder of Loveland Aquarium, about 15 years ago and found a kindred spirit. Both men had become enamored with the sea in their youths while looking at books about the ocean. When Kesler learned of Andersen’s efforts to fund construction of a large aquarium, he introduced himself via email and volunteered to donate website and graphics work for the cause. A few years later, after Kesler took up sculpting, he sent photos of his work to Andersen and proposed a life-size sculpture for the lobby of the aquarium.

Kesler spent seven months working on the whale shark and manta rays project in his spare time, usually until late at night in his home studio. He started with a maquette, a small-scale version of what would be the final product. Andersen hired Western Architectural to fabricate the full-scale enlargements of the sculptures under Kesler’s artistic direction. Kesler painted all five sculptures on site to complete the project.

After sculpting the world’s largest animal for the aquarium, Kesler began sculpting the world’s tallest animal for the zoo. The zoo was looking for artwork, and Kesler submitted proposals. He started with a 2-foot maquette of a giraffe, then collaborated with welders and engineers to build the enlargements and to design an internal steel “skeleton” that would support such a tall, skinny-legged structure without changing the sculpture. The giraffes were a year in the making.

The zoo and aquarium projects overlapped, and Kesler worked 12 to 14 hours a day for several months to complete them on schedule.

“My employer has been very understanding with my time,” he says of his day job.

Kesler has a dozen sculpting projects planned for the future, including several for the aquarium — sculptures of frogs, a sea turtle, plus a 30-foot squid and 16-foot sperm whale swimming straight down from the ceiling toward visitors on the ground floor. He believes he has found his calling in sculpture.

“I’ve never had such ambition and drive for anything,” he says. “There’s a lack of fear and nothing that can’t be done. I don’t see a challenge that will stop me. It just excites me.”

Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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