Rip Caswell, hunter, sculptor and lifelong Oregonian, is known for helping clients translate their field experiences—memories too profound to describe—into artful animal castings that need no explanation.
For those of us naturally drawn to objects of sublime beauty, especially things that wear well across spans of human lives, bronze is almost eternal as a medium. Hard as a mountain, it repels not only weather but it ages better over time. Sculpture, too, Caswell notes, can be a vessel for conveying dreams.
Jim Schilling counts himself among the admirers of Caswell’s magical touch. A passionate collector who owns several different pieces, Schilling begins our conversation about Caswell by first sharing details of an elk hunt in New Mexico. Following a memorable stalk through the foothills of the Southern Rockies, Schilling harvested a massive 396 5/8 bull and sent the caped-out wapiti to a taxidermist with instructions to deliver a dramatic full-body mount.
“It was an impressive, spectacular animal and I wanted him portrayed in a striking pose,” Schilling says. Soon, he realized that he had a spectacular reference point in his own home for how the animal should be presented. “I sent the taxidermist an elk sculpture I owned by Rip Caswell titled ‘Rival’s Response.’ Rip’s elk, created before I went on the hunt, bore an uncanny resemblance to the real bull and it provided inspiration for the mount.”
Yes, it’s true, Schilling says, life informs art. But with the antlered monarch that towers today in his den, it was fine art, thanks to Caswell’s mastery, that helped convey the spirit of an icon.
“Rip’s a great guy. We’ve become good friends and what I love about his art is that he doesn’t only understand the allure of the animal because he’s a hunter, but his skill as an artist stems from his incredible talent as a taxidermist,” Schilling says.
Just a few weeks ago, a limited edition, 1 1/4-life-sized monumental version of “Rival’s Response” was sold to a private collector in Jackson Hole. Still another testament to the growing appeal of Caswell’s work, it is the latest of 40 wildlife, religious and historic figurative monuments in public and private collections across the country. In addition, he has sculpted over 300 tabletop-sized pieces of varying subjects.
Arnold Schwarzenegger owns a life-sized Caswell elk, former Vice President Dick Cheney has one of Caswell’s trout sculptures, the late Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr. had an eagle piece and Rush Limbaugh has a Caswell depiction of a pelican.
Born in 1962, Caswell lives in Troutdale, Oregon just south of the Columbia River where he has a studio, art gallery and Firebird Bronze, a full-service foundry that does work for dozens of other sculptors. Because he’s so soft-spoken, few of those who pass by his booth at SCI might realize his pedigree. Long ago, it was Caswell’s expertise as a taxidermist that brought him national recognition among sportsmen.Caswell’s father was well known as a guide and outfitter who took clients all over the world. “I grew up in his hunting camps and was skinning trophies at 10 years old,” Rip shares. “I was always drawing and sculpting and based on my dad’s encouragement I went into taxidermy.”
Caswell was mentored by Bill Lancaster, a legendary figure in taxidermy, and he learned how to craft his own forms and manikins. In 1991, Caswell submitted a selection of works into the National Taxidermists Association annual competition. Based upon the scoring in four categories (birds, fish, mammals and game heads), he pulled down best in national honors. He also had two birds scored to be best of show, an honor normally bestowed upon big dramatic scenes of battling megafauna.
Caswell’s entries were a Gouldian finch presented under glass and a green-winged teal on stone. One of the judges told him the small avian mounts were so exquisitely rendered it was like he had engineered a pair of finely-tuned wristwatches.
Caswell’s skill earned him jobs preparing specimens for reputable natural history museums, including the Smithsonian—one of the most prestigious gigs in taxidermy—but they were so time-intensive he struggled to earn a living to support his young family. The better he got, the more time he would devote to a piece because he couldn’t let it leave his shop without it being flawless.
Then Caswell met a fine art gallery owner who encouraged him to try his hand at sculpture. At first, he resisted but was reminded that many of the best sculptors in the world started in taxidermy as part of their classical training. “I had been raised in a blue collar family and didn’t think of myself as an artiste,” Caswell says. “Taxidermy was my way to continuing the connection I feel to nature and then I realized that being a sporting artist was a way to take my creativity to the next level.”
His inaugural works in sculpture were varying portrayals of big game animals and waterfowl. Produced in limited edition, they quickly sold out, acquired by some collectors who had millions of dollars’ worth of fine art on their walls.
Caswell’s father influenced him in another fateful way. “He was an early member of SCI. When I was just starting out as a sculptor, he said, ‘Son, you need to join SCI, pay your dues and work your way up. It may mean that you start in the back corner of the convention hall, but eventually you’ll make it toward the center of the room.’”
Quickly at SCI, he cultivated a reputation for his portrayals of North American animals he was familiar with—elk, mule and whitetail deer, moose, mountain sheep and goats. His portfolio included game birds, fish and several career-defining monuments.
“I didn’t do any African pieces because I didn’t want to be accused of being a fraud,” he says. “I wanted to wait until I went there and studied animals with my own eyes in the field.” His first trip was a plains game hunt to South Africa in 1998. The following year he went to Zimbabwe. He has four major research trips under his belt, the most recent being last year when he accompanied Schilling on safari to Namibia.
Caswell was brought along because Schilling wants him to commemorate some of the animals he saw and/or harvested—animals ranging from Cape buffalo to elephant, giraffe and a diversity of antelope. Caswell didn’t hunt; instead, he accompanied Schilling just as famed naturalist-taxidermist-sculptor Carl Akeley had done with Theodore Roosevelt to Africa more than a century earlier.
“Rip spent hours studying each one. He toted along notepads, a camera and measuring tape, making drawings and diagrams to get the proportions right for bronzes he’ll make back in his studio,” Schilling explains. “He goes above and beyond what many artists are willing to do.”
In recent years, the diversity of bronze offerings at Caswell’s SCI booth has broadened even more. His middle son, Chad, 23, is now a regular making a name for himself as a sculptor. He also is at the forefront of an innovative creative design process that records the dimensions of animals and transforms them into sculpture.
Chad has been in Caswell’s studio since he was a toddler, learning by osmosis and molding hunks of clay into all kinds of creatures. When Caswell was commissioned to create a monumental statue of Navy Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, which today greets visitors at the Pearl Harbor memorial in Hawaii, Chad assisted him on the prestigious project. In fact, the signatures of both father and son mark the work. When the community of Tualatin, Oregon commissioned Caswell to create a stunning, one-of-a-kind 18-foot tall portrayal of Canada geese to mark the gateway to town, he again enlisted Chad’s assistance.
“Most artists are extreme right brain thinkers, but Chad is a mix of both his mom and me,” Caswell says. “I am left brained but Chad is good at math and he’s been building computers since he was young. He has a balance between both hemispheres of the brain and that ability has allowed him to excel with a new technology called ZBrush that enables an artist to design sculpture digitally.”
At SCI, Chad is establishing a rapport with both younger hunters and art collectors. “I’m proud to say Chad represents the third generation of family members who have been coming to SCI,” Caswell says.
Fittingly perhaps, Caswell’s bust of an African lion is the art that adorns SCI’s coveted trophy given to members advancing the cause of international wildlife conservation. At SCI 2017, he plans on unveiling several new pieces now in the sketch phase.
An animal that still evades Caswell’s portfolio is the rhino. He hopes to join a team of scientific researchers in the field involved with tracking the imperiled behemoths, barely hanging on in the wild against black market poachers. “I could sculpt a rhino but there’s nothing like encountering them in their habitat, smelling the smells, tromping through the brush and absorbing how they move,” Caswell says. “I believe as an artist you have to live, breath and immerse yourself in your subject’s world. Great sculpture is the culmination of you being there.”–Todd Wilkinson