Amy Bright Unfried’s Sculpture, Inspired by Trail Creek Ranch

When Leslie Steen asked me to participate in the Land Trust’s art exhibit this year, I was pleased to be asked. When she asked which of the properties on which the Land Trust holds easements I had a connection to, the answer was easy: Trail Creek Ranch. Trail Creek is the reason Steve and I live in Jackson Hole and close to Wilson.

Our first trip to the valley with our children was to Trail Creek Ranch in 1984, and we visited again in 1985 and 1989. By the time we started looking for a place to build our eventual retirement house, we were already in love with the views of the Sleeping Indian and the Buttes, the lodge pole and aspen forests and the abundant wildflowers, all of which we knew from our time at Trail Creek and wanted to have at our new home. It took years for the transition from visitors to part-timers to residents to take place, but we built our guest house in 1991 and ten years later our main house, and have now been full-time residents of the valley for fourteen years.

Process

I told Leslie I had some serious time constraints in producing a new piece of sculpture based on Trail Creek’s inspiration in time for the annual picnic. In addition to the long time frame that bronze casting requires — two months at a minimum — I also had plans to be away from home for extensive chunks of the intervening time. I would need to start right away and work fast.

The following Tuesday, with the agreement of Trail Creek manager Alex Menolascino, I went over to the ranch to walk around and see what might move me to creativity. Here’s how the ranch looked on March 31: still a lot of snow, especially in the trees. Deciduous trees decidedly bare.

Although for the past four years the sculptures I have been making have been abstract, deriving from knitted Moebius strips cast directly in bronze and accompanied by abstract birds, this latest body of work is an outgrowth of work I did over the preceding ten years. That work consisted similarly of direct-cast one-of-a-kind bronzes, but they were derived from small interestingly shaped branches that I would find during my walks around this valley. These I turned into little trees accompanied by somewhat impressionistic local Wyoming birds. That body of work tapered off when I got to the point where I wasn’t finding branches that interested me any more: for the most part, I had encountered branches in a great many shapes already and wasn’t coming up with new or interesting designs to make with the ones I was finding.

Onsite

It was my hope, however, that I would find some downed branches or twigs at Trail Creek Ranch that would speak to me in some way and inspire renewed activity in this kind of work. So I walked slowly around the ranch, my eyes to the ground, looking for sticks, picking some up, discarding them, hanging onto some possibles for a bit, deciding against them.

Under a tree, hard by the eponymous Creek itself, I came across a stick that was larger than what I usually have used in making my direct-cast tree sculptures previously. There are technical casting considerations that have determined the sizes of my trees–too thin or too thick both present casting challenges that may result in serious flaws or failure of a piece. This thick but pleasing branch seemed worth the risk, so it was one of the ones I took home.

During the following week I worked on the piece in my studio every day, turning it into a tall snag with a redtailed hawk, a magpie and a raven. I also worked on a second, smaller piece – a little tree with curving branches hosting six little birds– in case the first one didn’t turn out well. Since there wasn’t time for me to drive the work up to Belgrade, MT, where my foundry is, I had to ship them by FedEx, although the pieces were decidedly fragile in their state as twigs and wax. I got them off on my way to the airport Tuesday. When I return in May I’ll find out how things have gone at the foundry.

– Amy Bright Unfried

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