AN INTERVIEW WITH OTT JONES

Written by Kim Weeks from her interview with Ott Jones and using information from ottjones.com.

12/1/23


There is something eminently satisfying about sculpture, animal sculpture in particular. It’s both tactile and visual; a multi-sensory, interactive experience for both artist and observer. Running your hands along the cool bronze, you can almost feel the inner movement and musculature beneath the surface, while your fingers perceive the texture left by the sculptor’s tools and fingers. The idea of creating something so powerful and balanced, both visually and physically, from a proverbial lump of clay seems preternatural. Ott Jones has been doing it since he was nine and has a long list of honors and awards to his credit.

 

You may have already seen, perhaps even touched, Ott’s works around Bozeman. Streamside Companions, an ode to Labradors and fly fishing, is situated at Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport. Jim Bridger King of Mountain Men graces the Bozeman Chamber of Commerce, and Chief Morning Star stands proudly on the lawn of Bozeman’s Morning Star School. Ott’s sculptures also furnish the national corporate offices of Eddie Bauer, Garmin, L.L. Bean, and Patagonia and are used for a variety of trophies and commemorations. Ott’s piece, Birth of the Labrador, even adorns the halls of Sandringham House, the vacation home of the late Queen Elizabeth II, located in Norfolk, England. He has received dozens of accolades for his work, including a recent Gold Medal of Honor at the Allied Artists of America show for his otter monument, River Rascals.

 

Despite his success, Ott remains modest and credits both his upbringing in Spokane, Wash., and his parents for his love of the outdoors, as well as his early interest in art.

 

“As a young kid, my dad taught me how to hunt and fish and to backpack. And Mom taught me to appreciate and enjoy wildlife, animals, and birds and things. My mom was a painter early on,” Ott said. “Both Mom and Dad enjoyed going to art shows in Spokane, and they collected Western art, so that’s how I initially became attracted to and intrigued by art work, western and wildlife.”

 

At one of these art shows, Ott, who was in third grade at the time, met a man who, in all likelihood, launched his sculpting career. The owner of a foundry in Los Angeles, this man gave Ott some wax and challenged him to sculpt a piece, which he would then mold and cast at no cost. Thus, a sculptor was born. The piece, entitled Mother Goose, shows a remarkable amount of early talent and is part of Ott’s personal collection, a recent acquisition from his mom and dad. As Ott got older, sculpting took a back seat to normal adolescent endeavors, but he eventually returned to sculpting, by way of his science curriculum in college.

 

“I went to Washington State University in Pullman, Washington, and I attended on a tennis scholarship. I played for four years and took some pre-med, pre-dental, and took a lot of anatomy classes and biology classes that didn’t work out. But I use a lot of that today in my sculpture,” he said. “I just got a good background in animals and also in anatomy. And once I was done with college, I was just kind of looking for my next step.”

 

His next step was actually a fairly big leap to Iliamna Lake in Alaska where Ott became a fishing guide, and there began to sculpt in earnest.

 

“It was just a great job. I would take clients out … and we would see all this incredible wildlife, grizzly bears and the salmon runs. They were just incredible,” he said. “And I began to sculpt up there in Alaska, doing pieces. And my boss was very nice, and his wife allowed me to display my sculptures up there in the lodge. That’s how I got my first clientele.”

 

In fact, one of his first clients was the late John Denver. Ott says that he was Denver’s Alaskan fishing guide for a few days, and Denver ended up purchasing his flying bald eagle sculpture. Ott ended up spending three summers as a guide on the Alaska Peninsula and was then offered a job in the Alaskan oil fields.

 

“That, too, was a great job. I was exposed to different type of wildlife, arctic wildlife. So polar bears and Dall sheep, caribou and things,” he said.

 

Between his Alaska gigs, Ott spent time in Colorado to apprentice with a preeminent wildlife sculptor and was able to develop his skill and even more clientele.

 

“She kind of taught me the tricks of the trade. I learned a lot from [her], and while I was doing this apprenticeship I had odd jobs. I would work at restaurants and bartend and did a construction job just to keep the bills paid,” he said. “And also, just starting out I became good friends with [actors] Robert Wagner and Jill St. John, and they were buying a bunch of my things through a fly shop I used to display in Aspen [Colo.], and they gave an art show in their home in Los Angeles, in Bel Air. This was back in 1989, and it was just a beautiful show, and they were the nicest people, and we still stay in touch. So that, too, was a big spark which helped my career out early on.”

 

It was not long, however, before Ott fully capitalized on his talent, experiences, and network and began sculpting full-time, which he has now been doing for more than three decades. He has been with Montana Trails Gallery for more than two of those decades, and Ott says he appreciates this long-term association.

 

“I have been very grateful to Montana Trails Gallery. I’ve been with them for close to 20 years,” Ott said. “I first met [MTG owner] Steve Zabel probably 20, 25 years ago and that’s what first got the ball rolling.”

 

Sydney Weeks, MTG manager, says they love working with Ott and seeing his bronze sculptures do so well at the gallery.

 

“Ott’s work is work is so accessible and meaningful, not just to gallery clients and art collectors, but also to local residents,” Sydney said. “It’s so fun to be able to offer them.”

 

Ott says he never wants for inspiration for his sculpture and receives it through his many outdoor and wildlife experiences and also his Bozeman home, which is situated on five acres abutting a large ranch.

 

 

 

“I constantly see wildlife and animals and birds, so that’s a great deal of my inspiration, too. And I can really watch the animals in the wild, being wild. That’s key, that you really watch their gestures and their behaviors, little things, which are actually big, important things,” he said. “So, I might be on a walk and just see something interesting … I get a little image in my head of what I would like to do. And then most times I do a little thumbnail sketch of what I want the composition to be. And then once I do that, I do a little maquette [small model created to visualize the final piece] and it’s done very loosely, and I’m not concerned at all with detail. I just want to find a pleasing composition.”

 

Sculpting with accuracy and authenticity takes a lot of study and creative and physical work. Ott says in order to capture his subjects, he needs to understand, not only their anatomy and musculature, but also their personalities.

 

“I need to know my subject’s personality and anatomy to accurately capture it in sculpture. There is nothing as valuable as sculpting from life, and I use a live model whenever possible,” he says. “The foundation of a fine piece of sculpture is understanding my subject’s anatomy and how it works, as well as its personality.”

 

Ott does not want his work to be a perfect replica of his subjects. Rather, he wants the impact to be represented in the animal’s overall shape and movement.

 

“I would call myself an impressionist. So, I want to be as accurate as possible in the anatomy of my subject, if it be a fish or bird or animal or whatever. So, I really sculpt the anatomy quite tightly and then I work backward. And instead of just tight muscles or tight feathers or scales, I want to viewer to enjoy the overall composition,” he said. “So I concentrate on groups of muscles and tracks of feathers. And texture is very important, so oftentimes you’ll see my tool marks and my fingerprints in my artwork.”

 

The process of creating a bronze sculpture is far from over once Ott’s tools are laid down. After the original clay piece is sent to the foundry. Eight more painstaking steps must occur before the final sculpture is ready. But while some artists might be anxious about sending their work off for completion -- something akin to sending a child off to college -- Ott takes it in stride.

 

“I’ve put my effort and time into the piece, and once it’s done, it’s done. And it goes on of course, to the next process, the next stage, so that’s all part of it. And the nice thing is that you end up with a finished bronze, which is better, actually, than a clay original,” he said.

 

The other nice thing about this process is that, because each bronze has its own mold, multiple editions of the piece can be created. Ott says, for small pieces, he usually produces anywhere from 50 to 75 editions. For “desk- sized” pieces, which he creates most often, he will produce about 25 editions. Large, or larger than life-sized pieces, only about 5 editions.

 

Naming his pieces is serious business for Ott. The titles of his sculptures, including Morning Mayflies, Precarious Pinnacle, Wilderness Monarch, are meant to invoke a narrative to give the viewer something to think about when looking at the piece.

 

“I spend a lot time and thought for each piece. It’s important for me to title a sculpture so it ties in with the composition and story I’m trying to tell,” Ott said.

 

The story he is trying to tell, Ott says, is incomplete by design. In his sculptures, he doesn’t want the conclusion to be drawn for the viewer. He wants the viewers to draw the conclusions for themselves, based on what the sculpture says to them. For example, if, in his sculpture, there is a chase – a predator chasing prey – he does not want to communicate a foregone conclusion.

 

“I want the viewer to complete that. It’s possible the falcon will catch a duck. It’s possible it won’t. I don’t like to imply death in my work. Once you have a dead animal, the story is told, right?” he said.

 

Ott says his first joy in his own life is being a husband, father and grandfather. From a professional perspective, he has known little else than the outdoors and sculpting, which has not been without its challenges. But he takes great pride in his work and is pleased to be able to share it.

 

“I want people to know that I put my heart and soul into my work. It’s very well researched, and I take lots of time to create my things. And so I want clients and collectors to know they are getting the best possible piece that they can get from me,” he said.

 

Ott’s skill, effort, and artistry are unmistakable in the look and feel of his bronze sculptures. Each is a wildlife chronicle, a legacy of his love, and a permanent celebration of the outdoors.

 

COPYRIGHT MONTANA TRAILS GALLERY 2023

 

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