A lynx crouches with focused eyes, expectation blooming in its every muscle. A fisherman leans back, arm raised and line taut against the will of his struggling prey. Three bear cubs radiate that universal silliness of youth as they play on an accommodating tree. Each of Ken Rowe’s bronze sculptures embodies an individual personality and character, captured in the impression of imminent motion. Sprinkled throughout Rowe Gallery, visitors can glimpse some of the moments that have been captured of Ken with his subjects. As we chatted, he gestured to a video where he is interacting up close and personal with a male grizzly bear and playing with some little bear cubs—all with the guidance of the animals’ handlers. “If you want to capture life, I can’t do it from a photo,” Ken said. “It never comes out as good as you hoped it would.”
Ken has enough stories to fill a book, and his eyes light up as he remembers each of his encounters with some of nature’s most beautiful and dangerous creatures. He also holds a reverence for the animals with whom he has had the honor of interacting, and he acknowledges their significance. He shared with me an instance when he was sculpting a male bear in Idaho in the winter. After several days of staying at a safe distance and working from behind the truck’s open door, the bear’s handler, and the bear let Ken get close to the animal.
“So, I reach my hand out, and he exhales on my hand.” The awe of having felt a grown bear’s breath on his palm flickers across Ken’s face as he remembers the moment. “That sensation of him breathing on my hand made this click in my head like, ‘look at the volume in this animal’s chest.’ It changed every bear piece I have ever sculpted since then. It was a profound thing. How can you get that experience from a photo? You can’t.” Ken was interested in nature from a very young age, and it has always been a part of his life. Before pursuing his career as an artist, Ken had a very different relationship with animals. In 1980, he and his wife Monica opened a taxidermy business in Phoenix. It was a perfect combination of his love for nature, his mother’s artistic eye, and his father’s understanding of math and proportion.
Building mannequins for animal skins turned out to be just a stepping-stone. About seven years into owning the business, both Ken and Monica signed up for a college course in sculpture; Ken fell in love. “I was hooked,” he said, smiling as he thought back to that moment of realization. Sculpture was just building taxidermy mannequins at about 1/5th the scale and with more artistic freedom. His work in taxidermy had laid an ideal foundation for his life’s true calling.
With his passion discovered, Ken worked tirelessly over the next seven years to perfect his craft and build his portfolio while still managing his taxidermy business. His hard work eventually paid off, and he got into a gallery. It was in that gallery that western artist and sculptor Ken Payne discovered Ken’s art. Ken couldn’t believe it when his artistic hero not only acknowledged his talent but invited him to bring his work to Sedona and show it in Mountain Trails Gallery. Ken and Monica made the leap. They closed the taxidermy shop, sold their house in Phoenix and moved to Sedona. The rest is history. Ken recognizes how fortunate he has been in his life and along his journey as an artist, and he carries that appreciation with him as he manages his own gallery now. He hopes to strike a balance between showcasing his own work, highlighting the incredible talents of his other artists and meeting the expectations and desires of his clients.
“We have 18 different artists here,” Ken explained. “And the last thing I want this gallery to look like is a shrine to me. It’s not. It’s a shrine to artists I really love and admire.” Ken is both humbled and excited by the opportunity to share his space and good fortune with other artists, just as Ken Payne did for him. He also recognizes the value that such variety can bring to the gallery, pointing out that diversity helps the client base. He is proud to be able to offer both traditional pieces as well as more contemporary art, depending on what speaks to the client. Even while owning the gallery, Ken has still maintained his passion for creating art. He continues to learn and improve his craft, and he will be the first to admit that he is far from perfect.
“There are a lot of [sculptures] that are in the thought process that I really feel as though I haven’t matured enough as an artist to do,” Ken explained. “I think that it is really important not to hurry … there are some I may never get to, but boy I want to in the biggest way. But that’s the challenge that I find so fun.”
Ken can usually be found working in the gallery on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, honing in on the details of a given piece. Sometimes he’ll even start one from scratch with a live model. “Once or twice a year I will do demonstrations where I will bring an animal here to the gallery,” Ken said, explaining that for these events he usually has smaller subjects like owls. “I will do what is called a quick draw. I will sculpt out here in the courtyard, as quick as I can in an hour. It’s a blast. I love doing it.”
It’s quite the treat for visitors to experience and witness first-hand the artist breathing the uniqueness of the life before him into the sculpture at his fingertips.
“Ken has enough stories to fill a book … and his eyes light up as he remembers each of his encounters with some of nature’s most beautiful and dangerous creatures.” ”
Story written by Sara Knight Photos provided by Rowe Gallery Portrait by Stephen Henderson