Every year, the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition attracts talented artists from around the globe to exhibit their work. Sculptors Eric Tardif and Sandy Graves are two such artists attending this year’s event.

In a sense, they’re very different. Tardif bends wood to form majestic sculptures of birds in flight. Graves makes stylized equine and wildlife sculptures out of bronze, utilizing the power of negative space. Very different indeed. But what ties them together is this intangible sense of magic, this ability to confound the audience with their complex creations and still leave them emotionally impacted.

Be on Watch sculpture

"Be on Watch" cherry wood sculpture by Eric Tardif   Provided

Tardif is a French-Canadian who has been crafting his wooden sculptures since 1996. Prior to that, he had been a naturalist by profession, working at the Cap Tourmente Wildlife Area in Quebec, spending countless hours photographing and observing birds. But his artistic mind was always at work. “I had the idea (while working at Cap Tourmente) to create a new type of bird sculpture,” says Tardif. “But I didn’t do anything in sculpture at the time. It was just an idea.”

Tardif had previous experience working with wood. His father was a wood craftsman. “We made different things together — frames, boxes,” he says. “After a couple of years working in natural science, I decided to study as a cabinet maker. Then I saw in the newspaper, a course being offered about art and sculpture. I knew I was creative and thought this course could be better for me than cabinet making.”

"Aria" grey sculpture

"Aria" sculpture by Sandy Graves   Provided

In the course Tardif learned to bend wood by steaming thin planks and hand molding them. This quickly became his medium of choice. And he was a natural. Before long, Tardif was able to create logic-defying sculptures of elegantly curved wood, which represented not only the bird itself, but also its unique form of flight. “A couple months (after the course), I received a financial grant from the government to explore this technique further and try my life as an artist.”

More than 20 years later, it appears he chose the right career path. Tardif continues to leave viewers awestruck by his intricate wooden sculptures, and maintains the mystery of them by revealing little of his technique. “I don't want to explain too much because many people try to guess how I do it,” he says. “I don't want to reveal this little bit of magic.”

Sandy Graves is a sculptor out of Steamboat Springs, Colo. She’s been working with bronze since college, but perfecting her particular style of bronzing was an extensive process. “(I had to) overcome some of the problems with the concept of making bronzes with a bunch of negative spaces in them and no real interior,” says Graves. “Every surface is dealt with. Where as in typical bronze, the inside is not dealt with because nobody sees it, but on mine you see all the spaces, every surface.”

"Browsing" sculpture

"Browsing" by Sandy Graves   Provided

Graves graduated from Colorado State University in 1993 and took a job as a high school art teacher. But over time, Graves’ success as a sculptor enabled her to make a living strictly as an artist. “I would say I sculpted myself out of a teaching career,” she says.

For Graves, creating work that provides her audience with an emotional reaction is paramount. “What we truly respond to as human beings is the emotional and spiritual side of what we see, and that’s what I’m seeking to express through my artwork,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if the body of a moose is flesh and blood, or bronze and air, if I can get the viewer to feel the emotion of that being, then I’ve succeeded.”

All that emotion begins with Graves as she prepares in the studio. “If I don’t have an emotional connection to what I’m sculpting, I’m not successful,” she says. “I can’t just say I’m gonna sculpt a dog. I have to feel the age of the dog, the breed of the dog, all those things have to come together.”

Creating these attachments allows Graves to become enveloped in the work and let it grow organically. “Those emotional pieces intuitively build throughout the process,” she says. “So I never know how (a piece) is going to turn out until it’s done. I guess that’s the magic of the artist.”