Imagine spending countless hours working on a piece of art that is destined to be destroyed. Mangled. Hacked up and tossed aside. All that will remain of your original work is a skeleton of foam, aluminum wire and wood alongside a big pile of clay.
This is the reality sculptor David Smus works within every day. After months of intricate detail work and painstaking care, he sacrifices a perfect clay sculpture for the opportunity to create within what is arguably one of the most permanent art forms there is: bronze.
As dramatic as it sounds, it’s all just part of the lost-wax process of metal casting. To get to the bronze end product, David’s clay sculptures are coated with rubber and plaster to make a negative mold, and often they are cut up into more manageable pieces or torn apart in the process.
“It actually gets kind of hair-raising because you put all this time and attention into an original, and then the idea is to, like, hack it up when you’re making the mold,” he says with a laugh and a shake of his head from his kitchen table in Harmony, Maine. “It’s kind of a nervous part of the process.”
David doesn’t usually do the wax casting or the mold making for his bronze pieces, although he has the skillset if he ever needed it. And although it can be a bit nerve-wracking to send his work off to the foundry for metal casting, he trusts the artisans working there to pour, craft and patina his sculptures to his exact specifications. He’s been doing this for decades.
If you’d asked David years ago if this is where he saw his life going he may have laughed. A lifelong love of wildlife brought him to the University of Maine in Orono for an environmental science degree in pursuit of a lifelong dream of being a wildlife biologist. But as he approached graduation he began to think it was incredibly “impractical” of him to think that he’d be able to get a government job right out of school. So he took his degree to a lab in Tennessee.
There, among the beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the artists living alongside it in nearby Gatlinburg, David fell in love with sculpting… with wood.
“I got really turned on by some of the work I saw there,” he explains. “I had never seen anything like it in Maine.”
David says the area, full of artists and galleries and thriving right alongside a hardwood belt, has always had strong woodcarving traditions. He picked up some tools and started carving, picking the brain of any artist willing to share even the slightest scraps of information with him. “It wasn’t easy getting them to share their secrets,” David jokes. But he did.
One of those secrets would eventually lead him to bronze; some master carvers make a sculpture in clay first and then use it as a guide to create the same piece in wood. It was a pretty easy jump to lost-wax casting from there.
The lab in Tennessee closed a few years later, leaving David with a decision. Find more work in his environmental science field or try to make a living at wood carving. Another impractical dream — but this time he went for it. He calls it his “window of opportunity.”
“Being an artist and being a sculptor and trying to recreate these creatures was a way of coming full circle to be close to the thing I love the most,” David tells me, gesturing to a room full of bronze dogs, bears, otters and heron. “Even without the wildlife biology job, now I could study animals and recreate animals.”
His love of Maine wildlife and Maine woods brought him home. Now, nestled away in his Harmony home studio, he lives the impractical life of a wildlife sculptor — and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
David Smus Wildlife Bronze