AN INTERVIEW WITH MIKE BARLOW

Written by Kim Weeks from her interview with Mike Barlow.

5/01/24


Wildlife sculptor Mike Barlow has lived a life full of travel, adventure, fulfillment, beauty and artistic success. He has studied classic artists in museums, stalked with lions in Africa, chased antelope in the American West, and careened down river rapids on at least two continents. He is a photographer, entrepreneur, sculptor and aspiring gentleman farmer. He says life and career are products of his parents’ legacy as well as his own deep and enduring passion for his art and the wildlife that are his subjects.

 

 

A native of Gillette, Wyoming, Mike remembers creating his first sculpture – an eagle perched on a rock – when he was six years old, sitting by his father’s easel. His father, Bob Barlow, was a renowned landscape artist, famous for his paintings of Alaska and the Canadian and American West, but he also captured breathtaking scenes in many other continents.

 

 

“I grew up with art in my family. My mother played the piano, my father painted, and I would sit beside my father while he painted, and he had wax and clay that he did a bit of modeling with. … I was fascinated with sculpture, so I would sit down next to him while he painted and form little animals at an early age,” Mike said.

 

 

Mike’s father also had a rich collection of books filled with history, art and, of particular fascination, African wildlife art. Mike and his brother pored over those volumes, dreaming of the savannah and the lions, elephants, buffalo, impalas, cheetahs and other exotic creatures that roam there. Mike said his family also frequented museums and galleries throughout the Western states, and his first stop was always wildlife sculpture.

 

 

“Instead of going to ballgames, I was going to museums, whether I liked it or not. And now, looking back, I’m glad I did,” he said. “But I was always fascinated with sculpture. When we went to art galleries, that’s the first place I would hit. That’s what fascinated me the most.”

 

 

In addition to art, Mike’s family wanted to instill a love of travel in the two boys, so their youthful dream of Africa became a reality for them in 1972 when Mike was just 10 years old. It was an epic, zoological adventure that would have an enduring impact on his life and art.

 

 

“We got on a big 747 and went to Kenya and Tanzania on a photographic safari for a month, and it changed my life,” Mike said. “When I look back on it now, for a 10-year-old boy it was just something that most children never get the opportunity to do. So I was very grateful and I wanted to make the most of it.”

 

 

When he got older, though, Mike’s artistic aspirations were temporarily replaced by a desire to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, a naval officer. So, Mike spent his junior high and high school years focusing on developing credentials sufficient to gain acceptance to a U.S. military academy.

 

 

“I took a few art classes, but my focus back then, of all crazy things, was to do well in academics. So, I chose difficult academic courses; calculus and trigonometry and all that, because my goal at the time was to get into the Air Force Academy,” he said. “I just think for some reason I wanted to challenge myself and try to get into the most difficult university that I could come up with.”

 

Mike pushed himself during those years, meeting every academic challenge, which paid off in the form of enrollment in the U.S. Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs. He soon found out, though, that his heart was no longer in it and left after one year.

 

“All I could do was sit in the library. And I’m looking at math problems and I’m staring out the window, looking at the mountains going, ‘What in the world did I do?’” he said. “I just wanted to be fishing in the mountains. I just wanted to be hiking. I wanted to be with the wildlife.”

 

So, Mike left the academy and enrolled in the University of Wyoming, where he graduated with a liberal arts degree, specializing in English and Russian literature. And while he didn’t take any art classes there, he still knew he was going to be an artist one day.

 

“I loved the outdoors, I loved wildlife and I loved hiking and fishing and some hunting and that kind of thing. So outdoors was always a really big part of my life. I knew I would be an artist someday, but I wanted to do a few things first, before I started on a full-time art career,” he said.

 

Those “few things” included earning money as a whitewater rafting guide, buying airfare, and backpacking all over the world. During his 20s, Mike’s exhaustive travel itineraries included New Zealand, Australia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, China, Hong Kong, Nepal, India, Egypt, Israel, Turkey, Kenya, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. And in those places he continued to tour museums to study art and sculpture. After graduation, Mike had the opportunity to work with a safari company to develop a whitewater rafting business on the Athi and Tana Rivers in Kenya, which led him into the first phase of his career.

 

“Through a long sequence of events I met a guy whose family was fourth generation from Kenya and he was going to incorporate whitewater rafting into the [company’s] safaris,” Mike said. “So at age 26 he flew me over there, and I wound up working for this company for seven months. It was really cool, because we were the first people to ever raft that river … and the company is still existence and it’s still going strong today.”

 

While he was working for the rafting business, called Savage Wilderness Safaris, Mike met a French photographer who made a career of traveling around the world taking photographs. Inspired by that lifestyle, Mike asked him what he needed to do to follow that path, to which the photographer replied, “You need a story.” 

 

“I thought, ‘What do I know more than anything else in the world?’ The thing I knew the most [about] is wildlife from Wyoming, in particular, pronghorn antelope. I moved to Gardiner, Montana, right at the border of Yellowstone [National] Park and I lived there for a year and photographed the life cycle of pronghorn antelope,” Mike said.

 

 



While he was traversing the Yellowstone River in search of pronghorns, Mike realized that he had the knowledge and experience to supplement his photography income by starting his own whitewater rafting company on the Yellowstone River. Thus Wild West Rafting was born, and it remains one of the premier rafting companies in the area. For 10 years in the off seasons, Mike traveled the world photographing wild big game, turkey, waterfowl, fly fishing and bass fishing. His photos were published in a variety of notable magazines, including Sports Afield, Outdoor Life, and Field & Stream. In addition, he contributed articles about his wildlife experiences, making him one of the most prominent wildlife photographers of the decade. Despite that success, Mike knew that photography was not his final career destination.

 

“During that time I knew I was going to be a sculptor, but I wanted to get the foundation and the background before I started sculpting. I just wanted to feel like I knew what I was doing in my subject,” he said. “So, that whole time doing photography I would spend so much time in the close proximity of these animals, watching them move, watching what they do, watching their behavior, watching their anatomy, and I just felt like it was the best education I could have ever asked for.”

 

While still operating the rafting company in 2000, Mike made the decision to put down his camera and pick up clay and sculpting tools. He rented a studio in downtown Livingston and re-ignited the passion for sculpting that he had since he was a six-year-old boy sitting in his father’s studio.

 

“I just knew that it was in my bones, and so it did come naturally. But I thought I knew something about it, and then I started doing it and very quickly realized that I knew absolutely nothing,” Mike said. “But you have to start somewhere and you have to learn from experience and it took time. It took five years or so before I felt like I was starting to make a lot of progress. The learning curve was really fast in the beginning. You learn a lot very quickly and then to get that one percent better, one percent better, and that takes a lot of work.”

 

In 2017, Mike finally sold the rafting business and began sculpting year-round, creating pieces ranging in size from tabletop to monument. Over the years, he has sold out numerous editions to collectors all over the world and earned dozens of accolades for his work. Mike says he owes much of his inspiration and success to his wife Tracy, whose background includes art business and marketing, not to mention horses.

 

“We make the perfect team. She handles the business and marketing side of things. She is also a wonderful critic on anatomy and movement because she has spent so much time with horses. She encouraged me to sculpt an Andalusian mare,” Mike said. “She travels with me everywhere and supports my dreams.”

 

Within a few years of his sculpting revival, Mike met Montana Trails Gallery owner Steve Zabel at March in Montana, the annual Western art show in Great Falls. Mike said he admired Steve and was happy when MTG began representing his work.

 

“[Steve has] a great location in Bozeman, and it’s a beautiful gallery. It’s probably the nicest, classiest gallery in town. And so it would be my first choice to be in a gallery like that in Bozeman. That just worked out,” Mike said.

 

Steve says they have truly enjoyed working with Mike over the years and his work is always a welcome addition to their collection.

 

“We are happy to be able to represent Mike and artists like him who bring so much passion and experience into their work on a consistent basis,” Steve said.

 

Everything Mike sculpts comes from personal experience or observation from his life and travels. Whether it’s a visceral predator-prey scene he witnessed in Africa, a powerful blue marlin they caught in the Azores, or Tracy’s elegant Andalusian horses, every piece has meaning. And everything he sculpts has some level of action or movement, which brings viewers into the scene and allows them to experience it as well.

 

“The hardest part for me as a sculptor is doing action pieces. It’s very challenging because, of course, anatomy changes when an animal is in motion, so you can study it, but it’s very challenging. I work from photographs. I work from knowledge and time in the field and a lot of anatomy books, as well as watching videos,” he said.

 

In addition to spending hours on safari observing animals, Mike has had numerous opportunities to observe animals both in captive and natural situations. While he believes that working from life is critical to creating good art, a lesson he learned from his father, Mike does not underestimate the importance of studying other artists and thus spends time in that capacity as well.

 

“I’ve visited many museums in Europe and admired the animal sculptors like [Antoine-Louis] Barye and Auguste Cain. Under my breath I’ve said, ‘Man, they are good!’” he said.

 

When viewers or collectors see Mike’s work, they appreciate the beauty and the skill it took to create them, and he enjoys hearing that. Of course, he is particularly gratified when someone is willing to make the investment in purchasing one his pieces. Ultimately, though, Mike says he will be most fulfilled by a legacy of quiet recognition of his work.

 

“I would like, someday, after I am gone, for someone to come along who really understands wildlife, really understands anatomy and art and sculpture, and looks at my work and says, ‘You know what? That guy was pretty good.’ To me that would be everything. Someone who really knows what they are looking at. And maybe would even say it under their breath,” he said.

 

Mike sees himself continuing to sculpt as long as he is physically able to do so and would like to create more monumental pieces going forward. He looks forward to expressing his creativity through more photography and writing, but only when he has the time to do so. And whether he knows it or not, Mike has already left an expansive legacy of sculpture, photography, and even outdoor adventure that has, no doubt, earned the quiet admiration of fellow artists, wildlife enthusiasts, anatomists, and thrill seekers alike.

 

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