Dan Ostermiller’s early years, as a burgeoning pupil of art may seem a bit peculiar to some. Especially, since many of his four-legged subjects were dead and it was his job to resurrect them – into art, that is.

Only he didn’t know that as a boy in his dad’s Wyoming taxidermy shop what he was doing could be considered sculpting. He was also sharpening a gift for emotional storytelling through the lives of thousands of animals.

Now 400 casts, thousands of photos, hundreds of exhibits and several safaris later, one might safely say “Dan Ostermiller art well.” 

Ostermiller flew in from his home in Colorado recently for a fireside chat and dedication of his most recent piece, “Oblivious.” This bronze piece, cast in the summer, stands guard in the outdoor entryway of Stark Museum of Art in downtown Orange. His inspiration was an Asiatic Bear found perched on a tree in the Denver Zoo. 

It wasn’t the taxidermy trade that influenced him the most, although it did ground him in the needed mechanics – molding, framing, stacking – but it was the creative force of being able to breathe life back into each animal by capturing its emotion and characteristic nuances.

“I would get so frustrated because I would always wonder about the moment before it (an animal) was killed,” he recalled. Today, when his imagination is awakened for a new project, he doesn’t struggle with the mechanics.

While most of the customers were focused on point size of an award-winning buck or grieved about a loved family pet, Ostermiller was busy studying the animals’ features and contemplating their many moods.

“I’ve always been so emotional and a jokester, so I didn’t think I would take on animals in my sculpting,” he said. “I was sculpting before I ever knew what to call it.”

Mentored by a friend of his father in Texas, Ostermiller worked alongside this taxidermist by day and explored the world of bronze sculpture by night.

Today, all of his subjects are alive and well.

“In June 2008, I visited Santa Fe, N.M., and saw a cast of ‘Oblivious’ in the sculpture garden of the Nedra Matteucci Galleries and I felt it would be an ideal sculpture for the Stark Museum of Art,” said museum director Sarah Boehme.

She added Ostermiller is one of the most talented and accomplished contemporary sculptors working from the inspiration of animal subjects and that she felt the piece would dramatically enliven the exterior of the museum. The piece complements the museum’s extensive historic western art collection.

Mirroring the techniques of taxidermy, such as measuring, molding the mannequin underneath the thick layers of skin, and using paper mache or perhaps fiber glass for framing, helped him anticipate the needed integrity required of sculptures cast in a variety of settings – front lawns, inside public buildings and in homes.

While there are smaller pieces, such as a mouse, a wild boar and rabbits, his largest piece, housed in Denver Art Museum, is 22 feet by 48 feet. It’s a sprawling view of a Scottish Angus Cow and Calf.

Ostermiller is capturing the eye of museum patrons, but he’s also been capturing the hearts of wildlife and conservation enthusiasts as he has sculpted a variety of endangered species, including the black rhino. He eloquently manages to steer clear of the political passions of animal groups as he focuses more on capturing emotions of each animal he portrays. For fresh perspective, he often goes on Safari to places like Zimbabwe, Antarctica and Alaska, tracking elephant, penguins and bears, respectively.

He has accepted danger as part of his job description  – he’ll sometimes take 8,000 photos per trip, in close proximity to wild animals on guided tours – but his smile, like a proud father, shows each journey has been worth the price. 

There is no fixed mold on creating; each piece requires more unusual features, which breeds more crafty improvisation. When he talks about Grace the giraffe, he shares the not-so-graceful process of creating texture as he forms this beast. Digging in deep at each stroke to emphasize a muscle here or a hoof there. And then there is the story of the crowned cranes. He used bronze wire brush bristles to get the hard lines of the crown correct.

Another one of his creations, his daughter Lauren, is becoming a chip off the old block. She has also cultivated a love for animals through her travels with New York University where she studies film. In fact, she took several photos on a trip to the Galapagos Islands, bringing back images of breeds not yet captured in bronze.
His philosophy is proven true. Every animal has a story and he’s going to find out what it is.

Memberships and viewings

His memberships include the National Sculpture Society, the Nature Conservancy, the National Audubon Society, the Society of Animal Artists, Ducks Unlimited and the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep. He currently lives and works in Loveland, Colo.

His art is on display at several galleries nationwide, including Nedra Metteuchi Fine Art in Santa Fe, Claggett/Rey, Caldwell Gallery and National Museum of Wildlife Art.