It took a long-winding, successful career in bird taxidermy for Oregon-based artist Stefan Savides to discover a new path as an avian sculptor. At 65, Savides has nurtured a deep sense of appreciation for wildlife and their natural habitats, especially birds of all species, for years. But it wasn’t until relatively recently that he dropped his original craft and switched mediums to pursue the avian form as an expressive artist.
“Birds have been a common denominator throughout all of my work,” says Savides, who grew up in the Bay Area of northern California. “I’m just one of those people that came into this world with a genuine fascination with birds. My earliest childhood memories are all about birds, and I’ve never strayed from that fascination.”
As a youngster, visiting the grand dioramas at the California Academy of Science in San Francisco inspired Savides to work with birds through taxidermy. His first foray into professional taxidermy came in 1963 at the age of 12, when he studied the basics of the craft and learned quickly.
By 16, Savides started teaching taxidermy to adults at his local community college. In the late 1960s, Savides moved to the rural town of Klamath Falls in southern Oregon, “mostly for the abundance of wildlife and waterfowl,” as he puts it.
Working diligently as a master taxidermist throughout the 1970s and ’80s, he earned multiple awards at all levels of competition around the United States.
Savides was regularly commissioned to create special mounted works for collectors, retail stores and wildlife organizations throughout his career. His strong reputation as one of the top bird taxidermists in the West led to notable success and trips across North America and to Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Africa.
“I basically knew birds from the inside out,” says Savides. “Through all of that time I also did paintings and wood carvings of birds. I sculpted forms for taxidermy, so that started early on as well.”
Through the late 1980s and early 1990s, Savides’ taxidermy career stayed busy and productive, and his skills were in high demand. However, Savides had long-term goals in mind. He followed his artistic instincts and switched gears to the medium of sculpture. As a self-taught artist, he’s been emotionally and professionally focused on his new vocation.
“I feel like one of those lucky few that never got interrupted by the system,” he adds. “I couldn’t bring myself to any kind of formal training, whether it’s art classes or seminars or whatever. I looked to others to learn, of course, but I came to realize that really nothing’s new; things really just get reconstituted. You pick little pieces from other artists and you create collages from your own memory.”
Savides recalls a pivotal moment in his career when he made the tough decision to switch formats. The initial spark came from working with a close friend and colleague named Bob Steiner, one the premier waterfowl and duck stamp artists in the West.
“I did taxidermy mounts for Bob’s paintings,” Savides says. “He was the first real artist that I knew closely, and working with him 40 years ago helped me realize that I really was more of a three-dimensional artist. From that point, I decided to do bronze sculpture.”
“It took a lot to walk away from taxidermy and move ahead as an artist and a recovering taxidermist,” Savides says with a laugh. “It was a natural progression, but the frightening thing was to walk away from a successful career. It was very difficult at first, but when my mind switched, my interest in taxidermy ended. That really launched me. Taxidermy is not a form of art. It’s only art if you apply the production and expression of art to a composition.”
Savides and his wife, Irena Podgornoff Savides, currently work in and manage the Savides Sculpture and the Avian Design Gallery facilities in their hometown of Klamath Falls, Ore. “It’s an ever-growing wood shop and metal-working shop that keeps expanding,” says Savides.
Whereas most modern sculptors will send pieces to a professional foundry where they’re molded through the lost-wax process and cast with bronze, Savides and his team handle much of the work themselves. “If it’s a simple piece, I’ll mold it myself, but otherwise, we’ll hire a molder to come into the studio to work with us on the complicated pieces,” he says. “We’ll send our own cast to the foundry and then get the cast pieces back and work with the patina and finishing from there.”
Through the processes of investing, pouring, casting, and finishing, it could take a month or so to complete an original piece.
“I’m fortunate to have a lovely wife who’s a huge part of the team alongside two employees who fill in the rest of the pieces. It’s a great team, and I can’t do it without them all,” Savides says.
Last fall, the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition named Savides as the Featured Sculptor for the 2016 event. It’s an honor Savides shares with Featured Artist Kyle Sims this year.
“Kyle and Stefan will be in Charleston along with over 100 others from around the country to create such a powerful exhibit of wildlife art,” SEWE Executive Director John Powell stated in a recent press release. “I believe preview packages and ticket sales will be brisk. It will be an exciting time to be a fan of wildlife art and a great time to be in Charleston.”
Savides prepared several new pieces specifically for the SEWE events this year. They include “Dune Dasher” (featuring a small sanderling), “The Opportunist” (featuring a great blue heron perched on a branch), and “Double Shot of Wild Turkey” (two mounted turkey toms in motion).
They will be available for auction during the Preview Gala VIP event at the Charleston Place Ballroom on Feb. 11.
“Our connection with Charleston over the last few years has been through SEWE and the Sculpture in the South series in Summerville,” says Savides. “It’s a great opportunity to connect with other artists and wildlife art fans. It’s certainly a positive experience. As many artists know, making a living doing art is not an easy one. You’ve got to give it 100 percent of your energy, every waking moment. Otherwise, it ain’t gonna fly, no matter how great your art is.”
On the web: www.aviandesign.com