Wyoming sculptor creates animal bronzes
April 12, 2017
"Liz was a small, frail burro that was blind in one eye and covered with lice when I first met her at a 1994 exotic livestock auction," Robin Laws said. "She looked so pitiful and terrified that I bid on her. I had no more than raised my bidder's card when the auctioneer shouted, 'Sold!' Liz was all mine."
Laws took the sad little creature home, treated her prolific bug problem, fed her back to health, and gave her lots of attention. Today Liz is a beautiful, loving burro.
"She is also my good friend," Laws said.
Not only did the Wyoming woman save, rehabilitate and befriend the petite, long-earred equine, she also immortalized Liz in a sculpture.
Laws has designed bronze art pieces since 1984. After an abrupt layoff from her job at Denver Industries in Fort Morgan, Colo., she decided to creatively spend her unexpected furlough. She dabbled in watercolors for a short time before husband, Myron, suggested she attend an upcoming art show in Denver for further inspiration. At the very least she'd enjoy a fun day trip.
That expedition included a package deal featuring a sculpture studio and foundry tour. Laws was instantly mesmerized by what she saw.
"It was fabulous." she said.
Returning home, she told Myron she was certain she could do that. Laws set aside art papers and brushes, used money from her severance pay to buy sculpting tools and pay initial foundry bills, and pondered what to create. Right from the start, animals stirred her imagination. It wasn't long before she'd captured their very essence in bronze. A thrilling band of Woodrow, Colo., wild horses served as inspiration for her first piece, "Broomtail".
Fellow-artist Herb Mignery spotted it at the foundry. The "Western Horseman" magazine cartoonist and Cowboy Artists of America member was so impressed, he suggested Laws enter the upcoming 1985 Sculpture in the Park event in Loveland, Colo.
The novice toted her "Broomtail" to that show where, to her delight, a Connecticut patron immediately bought the equine-themed bronze. From thereon until his death, that same man subsequently purchased something from Laws every year.
Where does she find inspiration? It begins in her agricultural/equine background. Born Robin Wankelman in 1946 in Brush, Colo., Laws attended classes nearby in rural Woodrow's two-room schoolhouse. She enjoyed helping move cow/calf pairs on the Box Ranch for four years in the late '70s. This meant long rides on vast, open stretches of the Pawnee Grasslands while sorting free-roaming bovines by identifying brands.
In the mid-1990s Laws, atop her good, bay mare, Pet, assisted friends near Wiggins to rotate 600-800 heiffers from one pasture to another. Laws rode drag to push stragglers up into the rest of the herd.
She recalled one hair-raising experience that likely provided her with plenty of realism for later bronze pieces when she and Pet stopped a stampede. She quickly admitted the formidible feat was accomplished solely by Pet's instincts rather than her own limited experience. Laws owned Pet for 15 years before her beloved mare died at the ripe old age of 27.
Some of the pair's escapades so intrigued him that renowned cowboy/author/philosopher/former large animal veterinarian Baxter Black wrote about them. She and Black met and became friends in the late 1980s at the National Western Club, a restaurant/bar at which mutual acquaintences displayed their art.
One of Laws' most faithful clients is world-famous mule trainer Meredith Hodges. The Loveland, Colo., woman schools some of her mules in hunter/jumper skills usually reserved only for horses and ponies.
Hodges, daughter of the late Charles Schulz ("Peanuts" comic strip creator), has collected Laws' bronzes for more than 10 years. These include life-size pieces of every one of Hodges' five champions and also of a mule in training.
The largest artwork on display at Hodges' Lucky Three Ranch is a majestic 12-foot tall fountain, which she'd pre-ordered from Laws to camouflage an unsightly septic system. Only after the beautiful piece was completed was it discovered that the system had long before been abandoned. Nevertheless, the fountain endures on the property as a stand-alone masterpiece, its 18 astounding equine images making a grand, long-earred statement. The fountain is included in popular public tours offered at the ranch.
Laws currently works with two Colorado foundries, Sculpture Center in Fort Collins and Art Castings in Loveland. Art Castings co-owner Tony Workman said his company annually produces artwork pieces for 300 to 400 artists nationwide and worldwide, including an Israeli man who's been using Art Castings for about 12 years. Workman really enjoys his career as a manufacturer and metallurgist, which he began 29 years ago.
"Lots of nice people in this business." he said.
Those people must be patient as well since producing each piece is a drawn-out endeavor. Workman said that Laws' "Broomtail", for example, required 10 to 12 weeks of foundry work for completion.
Numerous complex steps transform inspiration to completed bronze. The artist first forms a desired piece by hand in clay. A mold maker next applies liquid rubber over it. When solidifed yet still flexible, a plaster "mother" mold is put over it to maintain rigidity. When the mother mold has hardened, the clay original is removed and the mold heads to the foundry.
Here the mold (in two or more pieces) is opened. The foundry worker repetitively paints hot wax coats inside it until it's approximately one-fourth-inch-thick and then reunites pieces. Once the wax has solidified and cooled, the mold is completely removed. What remains is hollow wax identical to the original clay form. This centuries-old "Lost Wax Process" continues on, fashioning the casting which is created by pouring molten bronze into the shell.
It gets pretty technical from here, employing technical facets and terms including spru bars, the investment, slurry mixture, and a 2,400-degree-oven. To make a long and laborious story shorter, approximately 24 hours after the foundry completes its initial work, the shell is smashed off with a hammer; spru bars plus pour cup are severed off with a cutting wheel. The nearly-finished bronze is then sandblasted to clean up any imperfections. Desired color is applied by use of various chemicals; Laws noted that most bronze will eventually age to green due its to high copper content.
The larger and more intricate the piece, the more individual castings are needed before segments are welded together. Hodges' fountain, for example, required three years to sculpt in clay and another year for the foundry to cast and assemble.
Moving bronzes can be cumbersome, weighing anywhere between a featherweight 12 ounces to a beefy 2,500 pounds. Laws noted that, although she can manage smaller ones herself, moving companies, palette jacks and even forklifts deliver big ones.
Once metallic art arrives at its destination, everything is not necessarily home-sweet-home. In 2016, a small rabbit was returned to Laws for repairs after a bolt of lightning blew off its handsome ears. (Sadder yet is that the owner's home was simultaneously burned down by the powerful strike.)
A few creations topping the artist's 'besties' list include "Roy, A Colorado Road Runner" (actually a Golden Polish rooster with a land speed record); "Just One Buck" (a very memorable boy bunny); "Buddies" (an abandoned pup and a saddle horse that ceaselessly played together over many years); "Brahma Mama" (a big bully of a cow).
Laws and her husband relocated to Wyoming in 2000 due to health issues and a need for acreage. Subsequently widowed in 2006, the mother and grandmother happily continues to share 80 acres outside Cheyenne with her five horses, two donkeys, 10 cats, assorted goats, poultry, peacocks and an endless imagination filled with bronze babies, too.
The energetic, amiable artist currently displays pieces at Joe Wade Fine Art, Santa Fe; Deselms Fine Art, Cheyenne; Broadmoor Galleries, Colorado Springs. Laws personally shows her work at Cheyenne Frontier Days and the Santa Fe Indian Market, online at http://www.robinlaws.com, and on Facebook at Robin J. Laws, Inc. Cheyenne. She's been featured in "Southwest Art Magazine" and "Wildlife Art News." Robin Laws can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. ❖
— Metzger is a freelance writer from Fort Collins, Colo. She can be reached at email@example.com.