Artist inspired by wildlife, wild spaces

By Rob Alexander - Canmore

When Canmore sculptor Tom Hjorleifson needs inspiration, he turns his eye to Canada's wildlife and wild spaces.

It is an approach and a passion that has served the bronze- and clay-artist well, for what was first a hobby and then a part-time career is now a successful full-time occupation.

As Hjorleifson only sculpts wildlife - a life-long passion - he has found a way to help preserve the wild spaces these animals require to survive.

Hjorleifson, who currently has work on exhibit at Aven's Gallery on Main Street in Canmore, is donating 10 per cent of the proceeds from each sale of his work to the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative.

Y2Y is a Canmore-based non-profit organization striving to protect and preserve wilderness stretching from the Yukon to Yellowstone National Park in the U.S.

"These people are thinking long-term - 100 years out, 200 years out, and not many people think like that. Wildlife and wild places, that's what their focus is and they've got a big plan," he said, adding it's a vision he naturally supports.

Hjorleifson has also donated a clay sculptor of a grizzly bear to Y2Y to be auctioned off at its Nov. 10 Laughter Gone Wild fundraiser at the Banff Centre's Eric Harvie Theatre. This year's fundraiser will feature a Second City comedy troupe from Toronto.

To further the cause, Hjorleifson decided to make the 10 per cent donation from each sale apply only to Y2Y members. But as the membership fee is by donation (Y2Y suggests $25), joining the organization is not expensive or difficult. It is, however, one more way that Hjorleifson can help ensure his muse remains a viable part of the Rocky Mountain landscape he loves.

"As a wildlife artist, there's a definite link and I feel that what I'm doing is promoting wildlife, and wildlife needs these kinds of initiatives to be truly wild," he said.

Winnipeg-born Hjorleifson arrived in Canmore in the early 1970s with a degree in physical education. He decided to stay in the Bow Valley, but realized getting a job in Canmore as a gym teacher would be difficult given the small size of the school. Instead, he turned to the construction industry, becoming a stonemason, carpenter and contractor.

Sculpting did not become a part of his life until the early 1990s through a circuitous route that involved his younger brother and a trip to the Tyrell Museum in Drumheller.

Impressed by what he saw at the museum, Hjorleifson said his brother went out and bought a box of self-hardening clay and proceed to make a sculpture of two battling dinosaurs.

"I took a look at this and said 'you've got talent, do something with your talent'," Hjorleifson said,

It was advice Hjorleifson was forced to take in 1992 after sitting with his sons, Eric and Steve, and wife, Pat during Christmas, sculpting a clay present for his sons.

"My frog looked like a frog. The very first one I made and I hadn't done anything artistic other than drawing house plans," he said with a laugh.

"I had never really contemplated art at all. And then I made a raven and a grizzly bear and then very soon after that, I was selling them to neighbours and friends for modest prices, of course."

While Hjorleifson works from natural talent, he relies on keen observation skills, advice from mentors and local artists Tony Bloom and John Borrowman and a desire to make each sculpture better than the one before it.

"I like the discovery process and I like being totally unencumbered by the people who have come before me. Just do what I think is what it should be. So far, so good," he said with a laugh.

In both bronze and clay, Hjorleifson strives for realism in his work and he tries to improve little details such as the eyes, nose and fur on his bears or the feathers on a raven so they look as real as possible.

The only catch is that the limitations of clay mean animals with slender legs tend to get chunky ankles, for example, to ensure the sculpture doesn't break just above the feet.

But that limitation does make it perfect for sculpting bears - black, grizzly and polar - which Hjorleifson excels at, capturing minute details such as the curve of the nostrils, the shape of the eyes and the texture of wet fur, and their large, round bodies.

In bronze, however, Hjorleifson can achieve the finer details and have thin, outstretched feathers or shape the thin, elegant legs of a cougar.

With bronze sculptures of a raven, mountain goat, red fox and great horned owl under his belt, and soon a black bear sow with cubs to follow, Hjorleifson is picturing a bald eagle in flight with outstretched wings as his next limited edition series.

So far, Hjorleifson said each bronze he has made has sold well, but he knows that each time he makes a new bronze, it's a gamble and for whatever reason, may not sell.

"Because of the nature of bronze, it's a commitment financially and emotionally.

"You've got to be tough. It's not for the faint of heart. It doesn't always succeed (but) it doesn't mean it is not something worthwhile. It's a stepping stone," he said.

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