“One of us was going to die,” Stephen (Steve) LeBlanc said without emotion between sips of a diet soda. We were seated in his kitchen in his home south of Denver. Through a large window, I looked at the stunning array of Steve’s life-size sculptures —bear, elk, mountain lion, bison and deer—inhabiting the grounds by his spacious stone and wood studio/office.
Steve was describing a gut-churning event that had occurred during a recent elephant hunt in Zimbabwe where he was hosting a segment of the “Versus Dangerous Game Series” produced by Orion Multimedia. A wounded Cape buffalo had exploded from the brush thirty yards ahead and charged him. “He was like a freight train, except faster,” Steve said with animation. “I focused on its head. Time slowed. I smelled the musk. I noticed things: the eyes, the hair and saliva around its mouth, ticks, a deep scar on its nose, gashes in the horns. Already I was sculpting the animal. I was looking for that one millisecond I wanted to portray in bronze.”
The encounter ended more favorably for Steve than for the buffalo. Rapidly approaching striking distance, the buffalo turned its head to spear Steve with its left horn. That was its fatal error. Exposing flatter thinner bone on the left side of its head allowed a direct brain shot. Steve fired his.416 Rigby. The buffalo died a few yards from Steve’s feet. “You were almost killed!” I exclaimed. “Yeah, I guess,” Steve responded with a mind-boggling understatement.
The journey that led to that soul-jarring encounter with an enraged buffalo began a half-century before, prophesized, perhaps, by an unanticipated meeting with one of Steve’s childhood idols. Steve had been fascinated by animals since early childhood. As a little fellow, six or seven years old, on each trip to the Saint Louis Zoo, his parents bought him a plastic replica of an animal. An extensive collection quickly accumulated as there seemed to be no place he’d rather visit. Steve read about animals with the intensity of studying for an exam.
At age ten, the fortuity of fate delivered a sign, a chance encounter, that served as an unflagging inspiration for Steve’s commitment to wildlife and to the many disciplines relating to it. A gorilla at the St. Louis Zoo died and was mounted and displayed in a hallway with several offices. One afternoon Steve was studying the gorilla when he heard a nearby door open and close. Steve turned and saw a man he idolized, Marlin Perkins, host of the iconic “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.”
With poise and confidence rare in a youngster, Steve walked up his hero and said, “When I grow up I want to be like you.” To Steve’s joyous amazement, and a moment he never forgot, Mr. Perkins amiably chatted with him. “What are the odds,” Steve asked me, “that my statement as a little child came true?” Wildlife’s allure to Steve continued unabated. For his high school graduation, Steve’s dad offered to buy him a muscle car. “No,” Steve said. “I want to hunt grizzly bear and moose in Alaska.” He did.
Details illuminate the big picture. A sculpture is the totality of the details, but the quality of the details depends on the artist’s commitment to truth and integrity. Truth and integrity arise from study and field experience. Steve has had a lot of experience. From his hunts on most continents including dozens in Africa, Steve has studied the animals, alive and after the kill.
Details start with the bones. Steve has an extensive collection of them in his warehouse and studio. The bones are used for accurate measurements and as relative reference points. “The math has to be right,” Steve emphasized. “It’s a matter of mastering ratios. From the ankle to the elbow; from one rib to another.” With an accurate structural foundation, artistic interpretation then can credibly flourish: the hair, the feathers, the veins, the look on the animal’s face.
Steve’s experiences led to encyclopedic knowledge, which leads to the near-obsessive attention to detail that distinguishes his sculpture. Dozens of years devoted to the art of taxidermy has elevated Steve’s knowledge of the structure of animals. He does all his own mounts and those of friends and loyal customers. Full disclosure: Steve did the taxidermy on my excellent kudu taken when I accompanied Scott Robertson and Marcus Luttrell in Natal, South Africa. Steve says it is more challenging to create an accurate mount than a sculpture because the sculptor is granted latitude the taxidermist is denied. Taxidermy imperfections often are glaringly obvious and cannot be excused as artistic expression.
Here’s an example of how art is born from experience in the field. Steve was darting rhino at the Lewa Reserve in Kenya testing a M99 tranquilizer gun. The purpose was to get blood and DNA samples of the rhino and place tracking transponders in the horn, increasing the probability that a poached animal—and the poacher—could be found. Steve measured all surfaces of the incapacitated rhino, adding to his extensive records of data collected from many black and white rhino hunts.
During a visit to his studio, Steve gave me background information of many of his sculptures. His bronze rhino was the realization of his darting episode. He placed it on his cluttered desk and ran his fingers over the plating on the rhino’s side, commenting that the number of ribs and their placement were anatomically accurate. From a shelf, Steve retrieved a sculpture of a red stag and directed my attention to its antlers. No detail escaped his rendition. The burnishing of the bronze on the points and tines of the antlers and the cuts and the nubs on the base of the antlers on the pedicle illustrate a near-preternatural realism.
On his pronghorn sculpture, Steve pointed out the scratches and cuts detailed on the horns that faithfully represent the result of the antelope rubbing its horns on fences or from crawling under them. He gave me a tutorial on the shape of a polar bear’s muzzle. The nostrils on his polar bear are different from those of his grizzly and black bear sculptures because of their adaptation for the polar bear’s swimming.
Steve’s massive life-size brown bear is the realization of his torturous two-week hunt through Alaskan mud and rain. Showing me a clay piece of the huge sculpture, Steve said, “I tried to convey the awesome power and majesty of that animal.” He added: “The hunt was hell, but looking back, it was great!” His then latest piece, an elegant bongo, boasted correct twists on the horns. Referring to his Cape buffalo, Steve told me that when he was sculpting the animal he thought of Robert Ruark’s comment, “When a Cape buffalo looks at you, it looks at you like you owe it money.” Steve wanted to memorialize that expression.
Chris Dorsey, founder of Orion Multimedia/Orion Entertainment, wrote, “Sharing the Cameroon safari that inspired LeBlanc’s incredible rendition of a giant eland makes it an extra special piece in my collection. That and the fact it’s so realistic it would make a lion pounce!”
“I don’t sculpt anything I haven’t been around and studied carefully,” he said. Steve calls it “a dual deal;” the exotic animals he sees and the places he travels all over the world that enrich his sculpting. The sculptor’s task, its challenge, is transferring the energy of the subject into the art so that it becomes a conduit between the subject and the observer. “I get excited,” Steve exclaimed, “because I want to share that moment and how that moment came about.” Recall the buffalo charge where Steve was sculpting while facing death. His art radiates movement, tension and drama, as does its creator. Steve is a sculptor but something in his genes sculpted him.
Steve’s sculpture has received dozens of honors and grace the collections of major collectors, celebrities and political leaders around the globe. He has been a featured artist for Ducks Unlimited National Show and the prestigious Natureworks Show and Colorado’s Western Welcome Week. Although he has drawers full of medal and ribbons, he does not look at them very much. “That was the past. I look to the future.”
Although Steve’s humility would prevent him from making such a claim, his achievements in multiple disciplines—hunter, biologist, taxidermist, sculptor, TV personality—likely eclipsed those of his childhood idol, Marlin Perkins. All those disciplines intersect to produce magnificent art and compelling instructive television. The long list of programs hosted by Steve includes the “Professional Bull Riders Outdoors,” “Ruger Adventures,” “Whitetail Revolution,” “Federal Premium Dangerous Game” and “Orion’s Deadliest Hunts.” This programming, featuring buffalo, leopard, lion, rhino and crocodile hunting, will air by the publication date of this article.
“Browning Expeditions” on the Sportsman Channel introduces Steve with these words: “Follow renowned sculptor and wildlife biologist, Stephen LeBlanc, in a fast-paced search for magnificent game in some of the most beautiful locations in the United States and abroad.” His programs can be found on YouTube.
Television, and its replication on the Internet, are ideal formats to magnify Steve’s capability to convey vast knowledge and subtle nuances of animals—the twelve different species of giraffes; the nostrils on bears—to huge audiences.
Producer Chris Dorsey explains: “Steve LeBlanc combines a biologist’s understanding of animal anatomy with the flare of an artist’s appreciation and the heart of a hunter to bring his works to life in the spirit of the wild. To be a good outdoor TV host, you have to have an intimate understanding of the subject matter and the talent to transcend the hunting or fishing experience for the masses. These are the same traits needed to excel at wildlife art, which is why LeBlanc is as much fun to watch on TV as his works enrich any habitat in which they reside.”
Through his art and TV appearances, Steve is always on stage. He listens to people to continuously refine his craft. Improvement is an unceasing pursuit. However, Steve acknowledges, “A lot of responsibility comes with this visibility.” For better or worse, “I can’t shoot my mouth off quite the way I’d like.” He knows he’s being watched, evaluated, judged. He never knows who recognizes him, who has seen him, what their agenda is. He is aware he is an emissary, in broad terms, representing an industry as well as serving as a spokesperson for specific companies. “I’m not just me anymore,” he notes. “I represent a way of life. I am a gatekeeper; a steward of animals. I become political, which I dislike.”
“I can have the greatest positive impact on preserving hunting through my art and my TV programs,” Steve said, adding, “But I have to maintain focus, otherwise I get caught up in dark emotion.” To Steve’s lament, there is no joy in seeing reality so clearly. He helps fund an orphanage in Africa and thus understands intimately at the most primal level the value hunters bring to conservation and to the rural villages that benefit from them. “I am not naïve,” Steve said. “I fear the animals will be killed off. Corruption, poaching, the enduring power of the anti-hunting movement, where ignorance is trumpeted as virtue and feeling good is valued more than doing good.”
Not surprisingly, Steve’s hunting experiences have generated insights into the efficacy of some aspects of so-called wildlife conservation. Steve is unrestrained in his critique of measures such as hunting bans and airlines banning certain trophies. “I have seen the campfires of the poachers at night. I have seen lions killed as if they were rodents because they no longer had value once hunting them was banned,” he says with an edge. “Imagine,” he says with a hint of contempt, “what would be the reaction in the United States if a village in Namibia decided to restrict whitetail hunting in Pennsylvania or black bear hunting in Maine?”
Steve admonishes, “There’s a million reasons not to do something. Life is a gift. Do what you want to do.” He is a man of unceasing energy, as if there were a reactor in his soul, energizing, compelling, directing his life. After several interviews, I think I have at least a partial insight into what propels his prodigious work and travel. “My dad had all these great dreams and he died young,” Steve noted. Steve’s guiding principle, his Northern Star, was this commitment to himself: “It’s not going to happen to me.”
In his majestic book, “In Defense of Hunting,” James Swan writes, “Hunters these days ultimately hunt memories as much as meat to put on the table. Memories feed dreams and hunters must have dreams to keep them motivated.”
More than dreams motivate Steve. Every morning, he told me, he awakes and asks himself, “What can I do to preserve what I value? Is beauty enough? Sometimes I don’t have an answer.” He confides to me, “To create beauty in an often unbeautiful world, that’s quite a challenge.”
In one of our recent conversations, Steve exhibited a profound humility. “I have heard the sound of the lion’s road, nearly fallen to my death on a hunt in New Zealand, seen gorgeous sunrises in much of Africa. I don’t take this for granted. I’ve been blessed and I know it.” Steve gives all the glory of his success to the Lord, which carries a sense of duty and obligation. “I feel I have a responsibility to use my talent to the best of my ability to bring joy and happiness to people through my work.”
We know of several world-renowned hunters. We know of superb wildlife sculptors and we know of prominent wildlife TV personalities. But finding those achievements and more bundled in one person imparts a unique stature to Steve LeBlanc. Steve records his experiences in bronze, in taxidermy and on film and shares them with us. Whatever directs and energizes him, whatever drives him, we are the beneficiaries. We can celebrate Steve’s success and become inspired to be more successful ourselves.–Michael Sabbeth