Most people recoil at the thought of a huge beetle clambering over a block or a snake slithering down a pedestal. To Tony Hochstetler, however, the robotic gestures of a rhinoceros beetle or muscular motion of a boa constrictor are pure poetry. “A snake is one big muscle that eats,” he says. “In sculpting my pet boa contrictor Sophie, I showed her moving over the five surfaces of a vertical rectangle in order to convey the abstraction of her muscles pulling and pushing against her ribs.”
Not a very savory thought, some might say. Yet to Hochstetler’s collectors – be they herpetologists, entomologists or people who simply enjoy fondling Hochstetler’s reactions of the reptilian world – the sculpture offers an emotional touchstone with nature. “Anatomy is critical in all my work, but ultimately I’m expressing my feelings for these creatures,” he says, adding that he draws the line at “relationship” themes that sentimentalize or anthropomorphize his subjects. As an example he references the large-scale version of Sophie which was installed in Benson Park, Loveland, CO, in 1990. “Even though it’s realistic, Sophie is loved by children. Fear of snakes is a learned behavior, not an innate one. If you get to children early enough and show them the docile, gentle qualities of a snake, they will carry that memory of the creature forever.”
Hochstetler (b. 1964) knows of what he speaks. While attending Columbia City Joint High School, IN, he had a 6-foot rainbow boa constrictor for a pet and his friend had a 10 ½-foot python. “It was a liberal school with one of the best science programs in the state,” he recalls. “We brought our snakes to class and during our free periods we could sign up to visit the pre- and grade schools. The children weren’t afraid … not even the girls.”
Hochstetler’s introduction to his subjects came while he was a child “mucking around” in the swamp near his parents’ 35-acre livestock farm outside Columbia City. Wearing his dad’s knee-high rubber boots, he pursued the “big beetles,” especially the prized stag beetle. “They hide under rotted logs,” he says, thinking back to his early big safaris. “Stag beetles measure two to two-and-a-half inches in length and have two impressive horns on either side of their head, used for grasping and asserting dominance during mating wars.” Armed with a coffee can for capture and gasoline for asphyxiation, Hochstetler took his trophies home and mounted them into insect collections, which were regular winners at the 4-H entomology competitions he participated in from ages 10 to 17.
Hochstetler’s descriptions of beetles sound phantasmagoric, and he maintains that virtually every “alien” in today’s horror films is a composite of insect or reptile attributions blown into outrageous proportions. Better than cosmic books were Hochstetler’s firsthand studies of the reproductive processes of frogs and giant moths. Yes despite his high-school major in the living sciences, Hochstetler saw no opportunity to turn his passion into a career. “I guess I enjoyed the sciences too much to consider them a profession. I spent one semester in college and hated it.” And though his high-school homeroom was the art class, Hochstetler never thought of art beyond his second high-school major in the industrial arts of woodworking and drafting.
Describing his school years as a time when he was too naïve to not believe he could do anything, Hochstetler raised the funds necessary to join Teen Missions, a non-denominational organization that recruits young people to help build church camps across the world. Hochstetler’s assignment was to join a team of 30 young people in building the foundation for a camp kitchen in the Blue Mountains just outside of Sydney, Austraila. “The Blue Mountains were as far away from home as I could get,” he recalls of the 1982 Australian winter he spent with no heat and no hot water. In addition to learning teamwork and helping construct a facility, two lures from the experience would give direction to Hochstetler’s life. As a reward to himself for his work, he went snorkeling off the Great Barrier Reef and reawakened his love of exotic marine life. Second, when he returned to Columbia City in the fall of 1982, he was determined to stay in touch with Shannon Liggett, a high-school junior from Loveland, CO, who had been a member of his team.
By the spring of 1983, Hochstetler had mapped out his move to Colorado. He uncle Ed Schrock lived in Colorado Springs and was shifting from a teaching career to a pottery business. Hochstetler offered his building services and, after two weeks on the job, began throwing, trimming and helping fire the pots. “I’m one of those people who doesn’t hesitate,” he says. He didn’t hesitate with Shannon, either. Every weekend for nine months he drove two-and-a-half hours along the Front Range to Loveland … until Monument Hill finally got in his way. “In the winter the winds rip and the snow piles high. I was never sure if I was going to make it or not.” During the summer of 1984, 20-year-old Tony married 19-year-old Shannon and the couple decided to live in Loveland. Hochstetler applied for a job at Art Castings Foundry and was there only two weeks when he created his first bronze.
“It was a natural progression,” he says. “I was working on pieces by some of the most prominent sculptors in the area: George Carlson, Kent Ullberg, and Gerald Balciar. I got to see so many different subjects and styles that I had a good feel for what I wanted to do with my own work.”
For someone who hadn’t contemplated being a professional artist until he became one, the unpredictable and often unrewarding art field could be daunting. But Hochstetler seems unruffled by the potential for failure. “I’ve never seen my art as something I do to earn a living,” he says. “The three years I spent at Art Castings were a lesson in creating the kind of art that satisfies me first. I’ve been lucky that there are buyers out there who like what I do.”
A mentor who offered to critique his work if Hochstetler promised to listen was Hollis Williford (SWA Oct 87). Williford helped Hochstetler through six versions of one of his earliest sculptures showing a beached right whale partially devoured by a nearby polar bear. “I was really moved on an elemental level about continuing reports of pilot whales beaching themselves in the Pacific,” he recalls. “Then I saw a video about right whales who float to the surface when they die. In the winter, their carcasses freeze and eventually land on shore. As they thaw out the rank smell attracts polar bears.”
Hochstetler chuckles when he tells you that he restrained himself in depicting the subject.” I originally had three bears in the scenario – one inside the carcass, one on top and one looking on – but even I had to admit that it was more than an average person who could handle, so I edited it down.”
Among the most important rules that Williford instilled in Hochstetler was the importance of having a model of his subject in front of him as he works. Hochstetler secures live examples through the various biological supply houses in Denver, CO. “Knowing the animal and being aware of what it is like in real life are not most critical aspects of my work. I don’t sketch out my subjects. Rather, I handle them and then go to the armature and begin to sculpt. The challenge is to go beyond pure design so that I convey the qualities inherent to the creature, as well as my personal fascination with it.”
Hochstetler continues to work on a new beetle collection, having been exposed to a museum curator’s personal collection from which he found his model for the large version of the rhinoceros beetle. Also surrounding this young sculptor are endless shelves of books, including what he claims to be one of the largest collections on Art Nouveau in Loveland. He discovered this turn-of-the-century European art movement when he saw his first Alphonse Mucha graphics and has since gone on to especially enjoy the metalwork of Louise Majorelle.
The Art Nouveau philosophy of incorporating organic elements into functional art has had a decided influence on a series of Hochstetler sculptures that serve as both art and lamps, letter openers, vases and candlestick holders. “I’m beginning to be identified with the functional bronzes and by the fact that my work is, well, different. I can’t tell you how many people are attracted to my lamp of a cypress tree with an Asian mudskipper on it just because it stands out as not typically western.”
Also atypical are Hochstetler’s edition, usually ranging no more than 15 to 21. “I’ve done a couple of open editions to introduce people to my work, but I prefer to create more sculptures and to keep the edition sizes small.” At the moment he has about 30 subjects on the market, including several that deal with species that are endangered or near extinction. “I’m working on a pair of mating arrow squid that I will position on a column so they appear to be floating in the ocean. It probably won’t be one of my bigger selling sculptures, but hopefully it will make people aware of the beauty that it out there.”
Tony Hochstetler’s childhood awareness of the beauty of creatures that creep and crawl has been heightened by the self-education he has pursued over the years. Though he says that his work is anything but cerebral, it is obvious that through his knowledge of behavior Hochstetler is able to convey his love and respect for these creatures. “When I was a kid I’d catch frogs and bring them home just to have them around,’ he concludes. “Back then I tried to capture their essence by holding and touching them, now I’m trying to capture that same essence but in bronze.”
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