Sherry Sander marvels at how her life has unfolded, grateful to be able to sculpt animals and do what she loves. But there was a time when being a sculptor wasn’t even on her radar. In fact, initially, the Montana sculptor thought she’d like to teach physical education. Or be a reconstructive surgeon. “No, not a plastic surgeon—reconstructive surgeon,” she says.
Sander is a little like the Energizer Bunny; not showing any signs of cutting back on her work. Even so, she is the first to tell you that she’ll be 72 this year, and she’s been sculpting at least part time for 50 years. OK, maybe her hands are a little shot, and “I should have them fused,” she says “but then I think, I can squeeze one more year out of them.” Obviously, she doesn’t plan to stop any time soon. Maybe she’ll just slow down—or not.
Sander’s energy crackles as she weaves the story of her life. It is a life, as deeply intertwined with her children and grandchildren, her husband and myriad jobs as it is with animals and her art. Flitting from one anecdote to another, you can envision the landscape of her mind, skipping and dancing over her past only to return to the love she almost didn’t find: sculpture.
Sander, who grew up in Redding, California, recalls casting about, trying to decide her future. “I had no idea then that I would end up spending 50 years of my life being a sculptor in various stages,” she says. “A guidance counselor had told me I should do something with my hands. But, when I evaluated my abilities, I thought a reconstructive surgeon was a little lower on the list of what I thought was attainable.” (and yet, maybe she isn’t so far off the mark. After all, she takes a vision of one of her beloved animals from her mind’s eye and reconstructs it for ours.)
So Sander began to assess the possibilities, making a list of what she enjoyed doing, another of what she loved, and, finally, a list of barriers. Dyslexia headed the third list. However, being an optimist, she turned it into an adventure. “What starts out being your nemesis turns around and becomes the best gift you could have,” she says. “Because [of the dyslexia] I have visual recall. I used that recall to help me learn to read. It’s the perfect thing for a sculptor or any artist.” In the same way that musicians with perfect pitch always sing on key, Sander’s visual recall imprints the subtle gestures and movements of the animals she watches, which allows her to replicate the nuances and visual impact in her art.
Before forging a career as a full-time sculptor, however, Sander blended sculpture with what she calls day jobs, loving each one and letting them build the foundation of discipline that is essential to sculpting fine art. “I can’t even think about how many different jobs I’ve had, and I learned something from each job,” she says. “It’s like a pyramid, [building] toward what you end up doing. So you can’t really discount what you do along the way.” She ticks off some of her jobs: bus driver, high school truant officer, boat driver, concession stand operator.
Sander always knew she needed to be creative, but she didn’t know what shape that would take. After graduating from high school in the early ‘60’s, she dabbled in classes at Mr. Shasta College, hoping for inspiration, but nothing really stuck. Then one day she wandered into the art department, and something clicked, something she describes as “one of those life-altering moments.” She recognized that her ability to visualize could serve her well.
Sander learned that drawing was another way to educate her eyes to help capture the nuances and subtleties of her subjects. To this day she draws every day, because drawing is the basis for all art forms. “The ultimate artistic expression, however, is personal, she says.” For her, sculpting is the expression and, she says, it’s her way of drawing three-dimensionally.
For a while, Sander chose pottery as her main art form. “I wasn’t a functional potter; I did hand-built, abstract pieces” she says. She also sculpted animals during that time, but didn’t feel confident that she could actually make a living with fine art.
“One day, however, I thought, ‘If I don’t make an absolute departure from this work, I will be a potter forever,’” Sander says. “I wanted to go beyond that.” So, she sold her studio and stepped into the unknown.
By that time, Sander and her husband, Loren Vranish, had left California for the wide-open spaces of Kalispell, Montana, where he set up a family medical practice and continues to practice today. The 100-acre property they call home is a safe haven for animals to wander freely without fear, but it is also the backdrop for much of Sander’s sculptures. The expansive glass wall that is the front of Sander’s studio looks out over acres of woods and wildlife refuge, with a pond near the studio, offering a panorama of indigenous flora and fauna.
This is where Sander belongs. She likens their little slice of Montana to a cathedral. Through that cathedral is a constant parade of wildlife. “I always think of it as being home,” she says, “and I get to live here for a brief time.”
Sander says that, over the years, she has been fortunate to always have a studio near her home. She could advance her art career while raising three active sons: Scott, Rhett and Dane. All three, now married, have had successful military careers. Two sons are pilots for Alaska Airlines; the youngest, Dane, teaches Army ROTC at Montana State University and is a detective for the Gallatin Police Department.
With the rigors of raising a family behind her, Sander’s main focus is on sculpting. For a short time, she even owned and operated a foundry, believing that would be beneficial for her art. “I thought I could control production, because I wasn’t getting as much as I wanted out of the foundry,” she recalls. “[Instead], I lost a couple years of sculpting because I spent too much time in the foundry. Fortunately, I recognized when I was stupid, and it only lasted two years.”
As she nears her 72nd birthday, Sander is reflective. One thing she’s always prided herself on is being able to give her collectors art that “gives them their money’s worth,” she says. “There are people who don’t have the opportunity to live where I do. I want them to know these animals; I want them to love these animals, or maybe be interested enough to get to know these animals better.”
Sander is the first to admit that even though she’s young at heart, her body is older, and that has given her pause. “I don’t know how my age will unfold with my work,” she says. “I hope my brain will hold together, because I still have things I want to say. But, if I start just rendering [instead of creating], I’m done.”
Merely rendering images doesn’t seem likely, however. Sander’s interest is too keen, and her energy is still high. She admits that she becomes attached to her sculptures and finds it difficult to let them go. “So to keep them close, I write free verse about my work,” she says. “I enjoy that. It lets me hang on a little longer to a piece that I spent so much time working on.”
Some of her poems have even been set to music, thanks to James Stanard, director of the Glacier Chorale, a local group that includes Sander and her husband. “Crown of the Continent,” a collection of Sander’s poems, premiered at the chorale’s winter concert in 2011 and included this verse:
To those who do not live in this
place, the woods seem to be of
But within, reside a society of
The marriage of verse, music, and sculpture is poetry in three dimensions, yet another art form for Sander. Fully engaged in the art of living, her life and her career are all she ever had hoped they would be.