By Emily Van Cleve for Art of the West Magazine
The way artist Sherry Salari Sander sees it, if she could work in a studio without walls, she would. But separation from the wildlife she loves to sculpt is a necessity in Montana, where winter temperatures can dip to 30 degrees below zero. However, the huge floor-to-ceiling glass windows that dominate her studio near Kalispell almost make the wildlife sculptor feel as if she’s outside while she’s working inside.
“When I designed the studio in 1990, it was with the intention of feeling like I was outdoors,” Sander explains. “Outside my windows I see a myriad of animals going by, including turkeys, fox, deer, and coyotes. Eagles and hawks nest on the land. Big bucks come through the property before mating season. I’ve also seen mountain lion and grizzly bear tracks.”
Sander, who has won numerous awards for her work from organizations, that include the Society of Animal Artists and the National Academy of Western Art, shares her 300-acre homestead with an array of mammals and birds – and with her husband, family practitioner Dr. Loren Vranish. Her first studio was located in a utility porch adjacent to the main house that contained the family’s washer and dryer. After two years, she enclosed a carport and moved her tools and supplies inside. Before designing her new studio, she contemplated setting one up in town so she could keep her work and personal lives separated.
“I started thinking about how I enjoy being able to take a break and get some chores done,” she says. “Then I imagined myself as 70 years old and having to get in the car to drive to a studio ten miles away during a Montana blizzard. I didn’t want to do that, so building a studio at home was the best solution.” Sander maintains a business office, which is four miles from her home and half a block from the foundry that casts her sculptures, under the watchful eye of her assistant, Sherrie Menghini.
Two French glass doors and six steps in a short, enclosed walkway separate Sander’s studio from her house. It has become a home away from home, complete with a mini-living room containing a couch and baby grand piano. Both Sander and her husband are members of choral groups in town. Occasionally, they like to rehearse their parts at the piano or invite friends to enjoy an after-dinner drink with them in the cozy, carpeted space.
Most of the furniture in Sander’s stylishly designed studio, including the piano, leather couch, chairs, and bookshelves, is black. So are the linoleum floor and the carpet. White walls envelope the space. “I don’t know why I wanted most everything black and white,” she says. “I guess I love the contrast between the two.”
Although black dominates the color scheme, the studio never feels dark. Neon lights, grouped in 25 banks with four lights in each, are suspended from the ceiling. Hanging from wires near the center of the studio is a huge, rectangular bank of neon lights that resembles a waterbed. That grouping is attached to an electric motor so Sander can lower and raise the lights at her discretion.
“If I’m sculpting something small on my work table, I might need to lower the light fixture so I can see everything I’m doing very clearly,” she says. “If I’m working on a really large, greater-than-life-size piece, I can raise the lights all the way to the ceiling if I want to.”
Surrounding the main workspace are some of Sander’s most precious personal possessions. Books about artists, anatomy, animals, and plants fill a long, two-tier bookshelf. On top are old African masks, fossils found on the African plains, and folk art items made of glass, wood, and clay gathered during trips abroad. A dark wood curio case is home to a collection of antique cups and saucers.
“My son found the curio cabinet in south Carolina,” Sander says. “He called me one day and said he found some antiques he thought I would like. He sent photos of a number of things, but I was drawn to the curio cabinet. I just loved it and asked him to buy it for me.”
Everyday Sander can gaze at photos of her three grown sons and their wives, which are prominently displayed with other family photos on top of a large storage cabinet. The photo album also features pictures of her seven grandchildren as toddlers and as young children at play.
Several studio walls are adorned with animal skulls that were either given to her or purchased through the years. Prior to the creation of a series of arctic wildlife sculpture eight years ago, Sander traveled to the Yukon to observe wild caribou and came home with a skull. The beautiful stuffed peacock hanging above the couch is compliments of a local taxidermist.
Sander kept the studio’s wall space to a minimum so she can enjoy the outside world while working inside. A natural spring pond that can be easily seen while sitting on the couch attracts dozens of ducks and several species of birds. Decorated with sculpture, the pond hums with the sound of a gentle waterfall during the summer months. Sander fondly recalls observing a pair of fox that were indulging themselves in a long, leisurely drink while perched on a felled cottonwood branch poised at the water’s edge.
As much as she loves to be inside the studio, Sander relishes time spent outside. For her, studio space extends far beyond the structure’s four walls. Since environments are given the same kind of careful and loving attention as the animals in her sculptures, spending studio time in and around the property’s old growth forest and around its many ponds is a critical part of the creative process.
“I do get wonderful ideas for new pieces by just looking outside my studio’s windows, but sometimes I need to get on horseback or go out walking to look for just the right environment for a particular sculpture,” Sander says. “I see a lot on horseback. It’s been my experience that I can get closer to animals to watch their expressions and movements when I’m on horseback than when I’m on foot because animals are less intimidated by the sound of a horse’s four-beat pattern.” In order to make sure that animals feel secure and comfortable, she keeps a reasonable distance from them and tries not to make eye contact.
Sander says her studio, and the pristine landscape surrounding it, have profoundly impacted her work. “I can see the evolution of my work through the years, and it has changed for the better since I moved into this studio,” she says. “I feel so close to the outdoors and the animals, even when I’m working inside. I think my work gives the viewer a window into not just the gestures of animals but the environments in which they live. I truly feel that the animals are allowing me to share their space with them. I never get tired of this incredible studio and the opportunities it provides for me.”
Emily Van Cleve is a writer living in Santa Fe, New Mexico.