Have you ever experienced art that just completely stopped you in your tracks? Maybe a piece of writing or a painting. Or maybe a musical performance or rendition. A simple sketch.
That was my experience when I first saw Ryan Smith's brown trout in bronze. I was mesmerized. I couldn't take my eyes off it. The way the way it all was captured: the expression, the spots, the subtle coloring it. A sense of realism combined with impressionistic elements. It all seemed to come together in a perfectly harmonious manner that left me transfixed.
I wanted to learn more about both the art and the artist. So I reached out to Ryan and he was gracious enough to grant me an interview and allow me to share some of his story and his work with all of you.
I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Q: Ryan, can you give me a little of your background?
A: "I grew up in Mesa, Arizona, relatively close to the Salt River. I spent a large part of my teenage years and beyond fishing and fly fishing the Salt River, the Black River, Oak Creek and a number of lakes on the Mogollon Rim in Arizona."
"I am a lawyer by trade and have spent the majority of my career providing legal representation to western tribes, helping them secure clean drinking water for their respective reservations."
"In 2005 I moved to Washington D.C. to work for a United States Senator advising him on western water and tribal issues. In 2010 I returned to private practice, predominately representing tribes throughout the West. While sculpting is taking up more and more of my time, it is not yet my full-time occupation."
Q: Where did the passion for helping western tribes/drinking water come from?
A: "As I mentioned, I grew up in Arizona, which is home to 22 Indian tribes. Due, in part, to where I was raised, I opted to study Native American history in college. After college, I went to law school and eventually went to work for the State of Arizona working on western water and tribal water issues. From there, I went to work for a United States Senator from Arizona where one of my responsibilities was working to secure funding for water-related infrastructure for tribes."
"The specific passion for working on tribal water issues mostly comes from the need to solve the problem. In Arizona, many tribes lack access to clean drinking water. For example, about 30 to 40 percent of the homes on the Navajo Nation lack running water."
Q: What are some of your hobbies?
A: "As with other artists that draw, carve, or sculpt trout, one of my main hobbies is fly fishing. I actually started carving fish as an outlet because I did not have the time to go fly fishing as much as I would like. The wood carving developed into a passion that has transitioned to bronze sculptures, including trout and other western animals."
"Beyond fishing, I really enjoy spending time off-roading in my Jeep. Really anything to get outdoors."
Q: Ok, let's talk Fishing in Arizona - the Salt River, Black River, etc. - were you targeting trout? If not, how did trout become a focus?
A. "On the Salt river, I targeted mostly small and large mouth bass. Most of the Salt River is too warm for trout, but occasionally you would catch a rainbow, depending on when and where on the river you were fishing. Most, if not all, of my fly fishing for trout in Arizona was done in Northern Arizona, which actually has some incredible fly fishing. In fact, the streams in Arizona’s White Mountains are home to the Apache Trout, which I do not believe is found anywhere else in the world."
Q: As you stated earlier, your subject matter includes a lot of trout and western animals. How did those come to be your primary focus for sculpting?
A: "As far as the passion for western wildlife, I spent as much time as I could fishing and exploring Arizona both as a teenager and as an adult up and until the time I moved to Washington, D.C. for work. I continue to be inspired by my travels out west. In fact, the bronze bison I recently completed was inspired by my trips through the Blackfeet Reservation, which is home to a herd of bison."
Q: What is your favorite species to target while fly fishing?
A. "My favorite trout to fly fish for is brown trout. They are relatively good fighters. As important to me, I really appreciate the opportunity to study their color patterns, spots, etc. when I do catch (and release) them."
Q: Do you fish around the Maryland area or travel to fish mostly?
A. "I do fish quite a bit on the Chesapeake Bay for striped bass, but it is not the same as fly fishing out West. I also do travel to fish, mostly to Montana."
Q: Are there any similarities to sculpting and fly fishing?
A. "Good question. Yes, I believe there are. Both require your absolute full attention and total engagement of both of your hands. If you are doing either well, you are totally immersed in what you are doing and not focused on anything else. I presume that is why so many people love to fly fish. It takes absolute concentration and pushes out any extraneous thoughts and/or worries."
Q: Who are some of your favorite authors/books or music/bands?
A. "My favorite band is the Tedeschi Trucks Band, which is an incredible blues band. (Everyone should listen to their song Midnight in Harlem.) My favorite book is Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose, which is a non-fiction piece about Lewis and Clark."
Q: Who were some of your mentors in sculpting?
A. "One of my mentors has been Tom Dean, a Montana artist who does incredible wood carvings. His work with exotic woods is unparalleled."
"Oddly enough, I met Tom through Instagram. I messaged him to see if I could ask him a few questions. To my surprise, he gave me his phone number and offered to talk. He has been so generous with his time, providing me technical advice on carvings, dealing with galleries as well as to how to value my work. We talk on the phone frequently and to the extent I have had any success with my work, he is a big part of it."
"I have also been helped tremendously by an another artist named Stephen Lee, who lives in Southern Arizona. He has provided endless hours of technical advice and his expertise has been invaluable."
"Although I have never met him, Nick Bibby has been a very significant influence on my sculptures as well. He is probably my favorite bronze sculptor, both from a style and technique perspective."
Q: What led to the transition from wood sculpting to bronze? What precipitated that shift?
A: "I spent quite a bit of time focusing mostly on wood carvings, but really got interested in the art and process of making bronze sculptures. I felt I could have a little bit more artistic license with the bronze where as the wood carvings I was doing tended to look more like replicas."
Q: What does the sculpting process look like? Can you kind of walk me through it?
A: "For the bronzes, I use the lost wax process. The following is a gross oversimplification, but it gives you a general overview. The first part of the process is the actual sculpting of the clay model that will be used to make the mold for the casting. Once I sculpt the clay model, I bring it to the foundry where they create a mold. From there, hot wax is poured into the mold and after the wax has cooled, it is removed from the mold in the form of a wax casting. Molten bronze is then poured into a mold that has been created by the wax model. The wax then melts and drains away leaving the bronze sculpture. After that process, I work with the foundry to apply the patina to the piece."
Q: Where do you draw inspiration for your work?
A: "For the most part, I sculpt the type of fish I would like to catch or have caught. And with the exception of the brookies that I have done, most of the trout I base my sculptures on are based on species from Western rivers and streams. As a side note, one of the benefits of sculpting trout is that I get to work on something related to fly fishing even when I am not actually fly fishing."
Q: Any cool fishing travels coming up? Do you have a “dream trip”?
A: "I am actually going to take my son fly fishing on the Madison in July, which will be his first time fly fishing in Montana. I am very excited about that trip."
"I have two dream trips. One of which is fly fishing in Argentina and the other is New Zealand. (I have not told my wife about either of these yet…)"
Q: Where can people find you?