Mike Barlow has a simple rule that may explain why his artwork is so visually appealing to collectors. Every one of his animal sculptures originates in a first-hand encounter with the creature he’s portraying.
Considering that there’s charging moose, grizzly bears, Cape buffalo and African lions inhabiting his portfolio, it doesn’t take long to deduce that Barlow must have rich veins of exciting hunting and fishing tales to tell.
Clues about Barlow’s life of adventure are found throughout his studio, located in Paradise Valley, Montana within casting distance to the Yellowstone River. His workspace has high vaulted ceilings and windows that afford commanding views of the Absaroka Range and the Gallatin Mountains.
“During the winter, those foothills over there have maybe a thousand elk on them,” he says, motioning toward the Absarokas. “And, as you can imagine, there’s a steady flow of fly fishermen on the river behind us every spring, summer and fall.”
Filling Barlow’s studio walls are mounts of animals he’s hunted and field dressed, art books celebrating the old masters, and framed covers of numerous sporting magazines. Over in a corner all by itself is the skull of a rogue South African hippo that Barlow harvested. The room’s centerpieces are several sculpting tables where Barlow’s animals rise in various stages of completion. Some of those will make their formal debut at SCI in 2015.
A native of Gillette, Wyoming, Barlow is the son of Bob Barlow, a noted American landscape painter and outdoorsman who brought his clan to Kenya and Tanzania in the 1970s when Mike and his two brothers were still young. Since then, Mike has been to Africa ten times.
Decorating his studio and nearby home are breathtaking paintings of Mt. Kilimanjaro as well as an oil of Denali and plein air studies of the U.S. high plains—all painted by his dad.
“He taught me a few lessons that have helped me succeed as an artist,” Barlow explains. “Study the great artists of history, learn from what they did, work your tail off, get outside as much as possible and always be true to yourself.”
Few artists have the depth of submersion in nature that Barlow does. Prior to becoming a sculptor full time, he guided float trips on Wyoming’s Snake River then helped open two wild Class IV rivers in Africa to whitewater rafting—both of them chock full of crocodiles.
Today, during the summer months, he and Tracy, his sportswoman wife, run a company that specializes in rafting trips down the Yellowstone River just outside the border of Yellowstone National Park.
Another aspect of Barlow’s resume, of certain interest to readers here, is his lesser-known status as a world-class wildlife photographer. While many artists buy stock pictures from photographers to use as reference, Barlow has a library brimming with hundreds of thousands of images he took.
Nearly two dozen were featured on the covers of various outdoor magazines. Probably his proudest moment, he says, was coming close to having the covers of three different magazines in the same month. He credits decades behind the lens with giving him insight into animal behavior, in particular the life and death interactions between predators and prey that he often explores thematically in his work.
“Being a photographer was incredibly satisfying and exhilarating, but it was just training for what I really wanted to do—to work three dimensionally in clay and bronze,” he says. “You can convey the spirit of an animal in sculpture in ways that can’t be replicated in other artistic mediums.”
Barlow’s smaller pieces also earn praise for being affordable while his more ambitious pieces have found a home in major collections. In the nearly six-foot-long “Flyby,” perfect for a fireplace mantle or banquet table, Barlow captures the spirit of five bounding whitetails; in the five-foot long “One Minute Mile,” he portrays a band of seven pronghorn off to the races across the prairie; and in “Royal Escort,” a protective bugling bull elk shepherds forth a harem of four mates. Sleek and elegant, his compositions are Old West, but with contemporary freshness.
“I enjoy making connections with people through art,” Barlow says. “It’s gratifying when you hear that something you made helps sporting people reflect on some of the most meaningful experiences they had in the outdoors.”
Regarding the latter, Barlow has been an innovator in decorative sporting bronze. His artful depictions of animal skulls—featuring deer, mountain sheep, pronghorn and American bison—have been enormously popular among both men and women.
Barlow has gone to great lengths to infect his own kids with a love for hunting and fishing, the same as his father did for him. A few years ago, he took his teenaged son on a moose hunting trip to the Bonnet Plume River in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Together they traveled upstream and stalked a massive bull.
Their bonding in the wilderness became the impetus for a tabletop piece “Alaskan Moose” cast in an edition of 15 that quickly sold out. As a result, Barlow designed a smaller bronze titled “River’s Edge” that celebrates the same animal.
Earlier in 2014, Barlow unveiled a dazzling portrayal of a blue marlin titled “Ocean Belle.” Captivating, it was inspired by a recent romantic “research trip” he took with his wife to the Azore islands off the coast of Portugal. In four days of catch and release fishing, the couple successfully landed eight billfish, each topping 550 pounds.
Barlow, undeterred, was questing to hook into an elusive “grander,” so named for a monster surpassing 1,000 pounds. “Blue marlins sit at the top of the food chain. They have few predators in the wild, except for humans, and can easily outrun sharks,” he says.
In the final hours of their adventure, trolling at a good clip over deep water, Barlow’s reel ran with a massive 750-pound marlin on the end. He created a sculpture as homage to the king of sport fish.
“I’ve had the good fortune of going to Cuba tarpon fishing, and, of course, have been on some incredible big game hunts. This one was just as memorable,” he says. “Marlin are extraordinarily beautiful fish. Their lines and symmetry make them as sculptural as any animal you find on land.”
Barlow will premiere five new works of African and North American subjects, all in small edition sizes, when the SCI faithful gathers in Las Vegas.– Todd Wilkinson