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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.

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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