Wildlife sculpture by Tyrel Johnson
Wildlife sculpture by Tyrel Johnson

Finding Peace in Connecting to the Wild:
Tyrel Johnson Fine Art wildlife sculptures explore human-to-animal experience

by Amy Stark

Whether wild lynx, bison, frog or fish, the bronze-and-wood wildlife sculptures of Montana artist Tyrel Johnson bring a sense of peace to their audience while offering a unique story of nature. As someone whose connection with animals goes back to childhood – as a defender even of insects – Johnson finds wild creatures a worthy subject for his artwork in part because they’re free of some of the preconceived ideas people have viewing a human form.

“I always wanted to create art that pulls the viewer in more deeply than just the aesthetic or subject,” he says. “We don’t tend to have deep-set bias or judgement toward animals outside of innate admiration.”

Wildlife sculptures
L to R: Johnson counts “A Bird in the Hand” as something of a self-portrait regarding early lessons about his art; his award-winning “The Huntress” was originally created on commission for a home.

Johnson has won praise and commissions for pieces that portray human interaction with animals as with “The Huntress,” depicting the respect between archer and stag, originally a commission for “a massive home.” He considers the sculpture “a great triumph. I thought, ‘how do I draw a guest all the way from one side of the great room to the other with a sculpture?’” he recalls. “The human experience is a unique adventure. When we see people, we categorize them immediately based on experience. The use of animals removes the bias in such a way that they can see themselves as the person in the settings that I sculpt,” allowing them to experience the emotion summoned by a piece in a way they couldn’t if the subjects were both people.

Sculpture Tyrel Johnson
L to R: Johnson at work in his Billings, Montana, studio workshop; detail of “A Princess and Her Prince.”

Johnson’s first portrait, “A Princess and Her Prince,” is of his oldest daughter kissing a toad. At the time she was just five years old and anytime she ran past her father, he would call out her name and she would stop and pucker her lips before continuing. Capturing the sweet moment took a year of work, he says, though these days he can complete a portrait in a month.

Gaining that proficiency with anatomy was no small feat. For years he spent nights teaching himself through trial and error, studying skeletal and muscle structure with meticulous attention to accuracy after long days of carpentry work. He considers his early piece “A Bird in the Hand,” of a blindfolded woman holding an owl, a sort of self-portrait, born of the frustration of not being able to easily craft what he envisioned.

“I soon realized that the only way to elevate my artwork was to constantly create work regardless of whether I would cast the pieces or destroy them to start the next piece,” he says. “The blindfold represents my early ignorance of the solution lying quite literally in my hands. The owl represents the knowledge that I can create beauty and continuing to do so is both means and end.”

Art studio
L to R: Johnson’s “Gratitude” in a Jackson Hole home from the new book “Foundations” (Rizzoli; PC: Audrey Hall); detail of the bronze and maple burl sculpture.

The quietly positive emotions evoked by Johnson’s work – expressing gratitude, respect, perseverance – have made him a favorite with interior designers, earning a place in two recent coffee table books, from Jackson Hole interior design firm WRJ Design and from JLF Architects of Bozeman, Montana.

In the just-published Foundations: Houses by JLF Architects from Rizzoli New York, Johnson’s “Gratitude,” a “wildly peaceful” sculpture of a bison bowing in acceptance of thanks from a Native American woman, crafted in bronze and maple burl, holds a place of honor in the entry to a Jackson Hole legacy home.

Wildlife works in progress
L to R: Wildlife works in progress from the Tyrel Johnson Fine Art studio include a raven, a kingfisher, and a marlin – the latter is from the “Old Man and the Sea” piece underway for the July Hemingway Conference.

Perseverance is a constant in Johnson’s life and work, as is a dedication to creating artwork of the finest quality. As he says of his style and process, “I do a great deal of math after a concept pops into my head. I often ask myself things like ‘how would a museum display this’ or ‘what makes this a Faberge-quality piece of craftsmanship?’ The triumph of doing art is simply within the act of not giving up. I will always push the limits of my skill. The ease with which I do a face now is the result of hundreds of attempts.”

His latest sculpture, inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s famed The Old Man and the Sea, has had Johnson himself in uncharted waters, working for the first time with glass and leather, both of which he is incorporating in a final work to be revealed this July at the 19th Biennial Hemingway Society Conference to be held in Sheridan, Wyoming.

While this project has proven a challenge worthy of the novella’s protagonist, Johnson perseveres with confidence, saying, “I will pull it off, but there will be plenty of failures and late nights in the coming weeks.”

About Tyrel Johnson Fine Art
The youngest of 16 children, who grew up watching his father and siblings sculpting and working on castings at his father’s foundry, Tyrel Johnson’s destiny as a maker now plays out in bronze, stone and wood from his studio in Billings, Montana, where his passion for woodworking and sculpting – along with meticulous attention to anatomical accuracy – inspires his creative expression. Whether he’s sculpting a life-size lynx or a miniscule kingfisher, a sense of story informs his precise and poetic designs. Johnson, whose work has won Best of Show at the 2022 OutWest Art Show & Sale and both Best of Show and People’s Choice awards at the 2021 Sculpture in the Hills, has been featured in media including Cowboys & Indians, Mountain Living, Big Sky Journal and the coffee table books Natural Elegance: Luxurious Mountain Living and Foundations: Houses by JLF Architects. For more information, visit tyreljohnsonfineart.com or follow @tyreljohnsonart on Instagram.

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