Larger than life

The life-size African elephant at the top of Lake View Road above Lone Lake stands 10 feet, 6 inches tall and dominates the landscape. Given it’s heft, it’s hard to believe it can blow over in a strong wind when not staked down. An ear is missing from a recent wind storm and there is a little damage to the left front knee. Despite the battle wounds, it’s still a sight to see.

The elephant has been kind of a calling card for sculptor Robert MacDonald. He set it up in his front yard when he returned to the island in January, complete with a set of lights that diffuses through the nylon and creates a striking nighttime elephantine pose.

“When I light it up at night, it is pretty popular,” he said. “A lot of people drive by to see it.”

The lights have been off since the windstorm tore into the sculpture. MacDonald said he doesn’t want to show it off without the left ear. The elephant is also plumbed for water, which spouts out the snout when fully set up.

The white nylon wrapped around a steel pencil rod frame was produced for the 2002 Northwest Flower and Garden Show as part of a tropical garden exhibit. The exhibitors wanted a Thai elephant, but found that at 9-feet tall, it was too small. So, sculptor Robert MacDonald opted for the larger African cousin.

MacDonald is casually looking for a permanent home for the white elephant. But, he’s in no hurry. It’s been a strong attention getter as he tries to establish his Whidbey Island sculpting shop.

MacDonald, 32, is a 1990 graduate of South Whidbey High School who has managed to make a living as a sculptor since graduation. Between 1991 and 1999, he worked as a sculptor for DillonWorks! in Seattle, a custom fabrication firm specializing in custom art for commercial application. While there, he created art for a number of movies shot in the Northwest, such as Stephen King’s “Rose Red” and “The Hunted,” the latter movie starring Tommy Lee Jones.

In 1999 MacDonald formed Art Horse Studio, Inc. He made the move so he could be at the helm of his commercial choices and also be allowed for more time on his personal works.

“In commercial you’re almost never allowed to follow your instincts,” he said.

Since shifting his focus he has held a number of exhibits in the Seattle area showing both his sculptural and photographic works. He has also moved on to commissioned work as he tries to re-establish himself on Whidbey Island.

One of his most notable commissioned pieces was the Jimi Award — created by Art Horse Studios in 2003 as requested of the Jimi Hendrix Foundation to be given to recipients of the humanitarian award.

This week, he was busy working on a set of three commissioned sockeye salmon sculpted in stryofoam and then covered in clay. The salmon are part of a commission that will eventually be bronzed.

Continually finding work as a sculptor has been a challenge. “The recession was hard,” he said. “But I managed to keep it going.”

He said he’s glad to be done with the movie set sculpting.

“I’d rather be working on projects like this,” he said. “I’m hoping the move to Whidbey will enable that.”

Under wraps in his garage is his dream project, the one every artist does just for himself. The mostly finished sculpture of a nude woman reclining. Tastefully done, the working titled “Jennifer Seduces Orion,” exposes more than the nubile skin of a young women — there’s the passion of an artist in her eyes.

At work on the piece for about three years, MacDonald is in no rush to complete his muse.

“I’m not sure I want it to be done quickly,” he said. “I’m willing to let it take as long as it takes because I really enjoy it.”

Art wasn’t always easy for MacDonald when he was a self-described “frustrated illustrator” as a freshman in high school. Art teacher Rich Conover took MacDonald under his wing and guided him toward the craft of his future — sculpture.

“It was amazingly different,” MacDonald said.

His first piece — a human head and hand, sculpted from clay. He was able to catch on quickly, and lose few pieces to the kiln. The giant furnace and its unrelenting heat is what places pressure on the skill of any young potter. It can literally make or break a piece, but from first get-go, MacDonald won.

He speaks freely about his appreciation towards his former high school art instructor.

“You can only go so far with teaching. He doesn’t over instruct, he directs you to your path,”

He said.

Today, that insecure high school freshman and sometimes overly confident artist are still battling it out.

Posters for Art Horse Studios entice you to “Come meet the wizard of oohs and A.H.S.” Yet, he cringes at the memories of his high school work.

“I can’t look at anything I did back then,” said the artist.

He admits to even not liking pieces he did yesterday, saying, “it’s tough to look at them” and is always thinking about ways to improve.

“Whenever I’m working I’m thinking about the different ways I can realize a project — the different finishes, different methods, different materials — so I can expand myself as an artist,” he said.

The son of Maureen MacDonald of Langley, Robert lives with his brother Byron, also an artist in his own right — this time with automobiles as the medium of choice. Together, they are beginning a new chapter for Art Horse Studios, with Robert MacDonald at the helm on the search of creative bliss.

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