Spokane sculptor Bill Sanders isn't able to put his heart into his art, these days. It's not that he isn't committed to his work -- it's just that he left his original heart in Salt Lake City in 1996, when he had the transplant operation that saved his life.
Bill Sanders' path to artistic expression was as winding as the gravel path - watched over by bronze Masai warriors, lions and gladiators -- that leads to his home in northeast Spokane. His first movements toward art were as a high schooler in Mead, where his parents had moved when he was 15, though even then he knew it wasn't the most practical career option.
"When I was in high school, I knew I had talent -- I could draw, and I got some attention for that," he says. "But I also knew that no respectable person made a living as an artist."
So he never pursed his artistic talents professionally. Instead, he enlisted in the Navy right out of high school in 1954, and "traveled all over the world, as a radioman. It was great, it really was -- I went everywhere in the world except Australia."
He had tried to enlist in the Air Force, but their tests revealed that he has red-green color deficiency. "Which meant they wouldn't take me -- and it's one reason I don't paint," Sanders says.
After four years in the Navy, Sanders worked in a plywood mill in Oregon before enrolling at the University of Washington. Just two quarters shy of graduating, he took a year off to earn the money he needed to finish. "I started working in real estate, raising a family in Portland, and I never went back," he says.
His only connection to art at that time was through his children, Sanders says. "I carved the pumpkins, I'd make the decorations for Halloween -- cut out the bats and witches."
Years later, after a divorce, it was Halloween that reintroduced him to art, Sanders says. "I got invited to a costume party, but since I'm kind of a stodgy person I said 'Screw that, I'm not going.' But I realized that if I didn't start accepting an invitation now and then, I'd quit getting invited."
He went to work on a gladiator costume and found himself getting completely caught up in the process of creation. He cut pieces of scrap linoleum, painted them black, then built a helmet, shield and trident to go with his boots and armor. "I was voted Scariest Costume," Sanders says, and an art career was launched.
Something in the image of the gladiator roused Sanders to buy 25 pounds of clay, he says. "All I know is that I had to try to sculpt the figure of a gladiator. I put my hands on that mound of clay and -- it was a shock, really, a revelation. That guy just melted into shape in my hands. The feeling was almost unbelievable, like you'd never seen yourself before and all of a sudden, somebody puts a mirror in front of you."
The ending of the story? Sanders shakes his head sheepishly. "Of course, I didn't know what I was doing, so I thought I'd fire him in the fireplace. He just exploded."
In the ashes of these fragile beginnings, a lifetime commitment to creating art was born. Sanders moved back to Mead to care for his aging parents and began taking college classes at night, learning how to cast metal. In an old dairy barn, he built an apartment for himself, and eventually built his own foundry. The gladiator theme continued.
"One of my first successful bronze castings was a battle scene with seventeen gladiators, a chariot and two horses," he says.
He sculpted the models, did his own casting, and began selling his bronze sculptures. "I did one of Indians on a buffalo hunt, and dragons -- and one I really liked was of Theseus and the Minotaur," he says.
He loved the sculpting but didn't like the grind of trying to make a living on the "art circuit." "When I was younger, I was always chasing around, going to shows, to meetings with other artists," Sanders says. "It finally got to where I hated it."
It was time to take a different direction. Sanders decided to create a series of life-sized figures, cast in bronze. First, he considered animals from the Northwest -- but then he realized that, ever since his time in the Navy, he'd been intrigued by North Africa. He began a series of life-size figures, both human and animal, beginning with two Masai warriors which he cast himself and then finished in acrylic paint. The sculptures are eerily lifelike, posed in a restful moment. A picture in the Spokesman-Review prompted a woman to fly in from Chicago to view the art, Sanders says.
"She got in at night, and she made me go out there in the dark, with a flashlight, to show her," he says.
She eventually balked at the price -- $22,000 a copy -- and the warriors now have a magnificent view of the valley below the Sanders farm, which he shares with his three (live) llamas, and the menagerie of African animals Sanders cast next: lions and their cubs, warthogs, hyenas, an ostrich, baboons, dik-diks -- all life-sized, all spray-painted with naturalistic colors.
Like the Masai men, the animals are caught in moments of repose. "I believe action loses life, in sculpture," Sanders says. "People like the dramatic poses, but when you have an animal in action -- a mountain lion leaping, say -- well, your brain knows that it's not going to complete that action. It feels false. That's why none of my figures is moving."
All the work he was doing in the foundry may have been taking its toll on Sanders' heart. At 61, he suffered a heart attack, but decided not to go to the hospital: "I'm kind of bullheaded, I guess," he says. But a later trip to the VA hospital confirmed the worst. "They said my heart was no good," Sanders says. "They said I was going to die. Soon."
In 1996, he flew to Salt Lake City for the transplant operation. It was a year before he could walk, two years before he could come home. The transplant, and the anti-rejection medicine he continues to take, meant that he'd have to give up bronze casting: "With the furnace, once you turn it on, you're committed to a 16-hour day, running around, sweating. I just couldn't do it anymore."
But the need to keep creating won out, and Sanders didn't wait long before launching into the next phase of his art life -- metal sculpture. He made a saber-toothed tiger skeleton out of cut and welded metal. A stegosaurus followed. Then, a life-sized chariot, with driver, pulled by two rearing horses. A Japanese samurai warrior. And a moose, circled by three threatening wolves, which was recently installed near the Spokane International Airport.
That grouping was donated "to the residents of the city of Spokane" by businesswoman Nancy Santschi-Apodaca, in honor of her parents, Oscar and Juanita Santschi. "I like the thought that more people will see Bill's work," Santschi-Apodaca says. "He puts his heart and soul into everything he does."
Santschi-Apodaca, who owns The Ugly Duck store in Spokane, has one of Sanders' metalwork draft horses at her South Hill home. Three more of the horse sculptures are in private collections around Spokane.
The metalwork has undergone a revolution of its own. "I've had to change my working methods again, because I can't lift more than 10 or 15 pounds," Sanders says. The medication he takes since his transplant "is eating away the cartilage, especially in my back and shoulders. In some places, it's bone-on-bone."
Unlike the draft horses, these newer pieces are rendered in the round. Sanders cuts small sections of sheet metal, hammers them into shape, then welds the pieces together to form a life-sized -- and lifelike -- animal. Among these recent works is a grizzly bear with its paw on a salmon.
Each of these new sculptures takes about a year to complete. Sanders starts at the library, searching for a photo of his subject animal in just the right pose. From there, he completes a scale drawing, showing the animal in three dimensions. He creates a spine and a belly outline out of steel, and begins cutting metal to fit the pictures he stores in his imagination. "That's why I can't have anybody help me," he says. "After the drawing, it's all in my head."
Despite being made of metal, Sanders' animals radiate a sense of being alive. "I work from nature, and I like Hellenistic art -- it has to be lifelike, as lifelike as possible," he says. These metal-sculpture animals, like his bronzes, are shown in a moment of pause. "If you have an animal just standing there, looking at you, you might think, did that thing just move? I like that surprise."
At the moment, he's finishing work on a life-sized cape buffalo, one of a group of three he has planned. "The second one will be bigger, and meaner-looking -- I didn't quite get that malevolent look in its eye, the first time."
And after that? "The hospital told me that I probably had a five- or ten-year life expectancy, after the transplant," he says, "and each of these new pieces takes a year, so who knows?" But something in his voice suggests he's not done yet.
"Well, yeah," Sanders admits, "I've got a few more ideas, after those buffalo are done. Did you know that a salt-water crocodile stands 5 feet tall -- at the hips? A 24-foot seagoing croc can weigh 3,500 pounds!" His philosophy, which he says was influenced by the Rosicrucians, is to "keep planning new projects. Plan as if you're going to live forever."
Whatever the future brings, Sanders says he's satisfied that his art has allowed him to make an indelible mark in the world. "I saw an article about the excavation of a failed Roman city in North Africa, built about 3,000 years ago. They found a bronze plaque that said, 'Dedicated by Anabel Rufio.' His name's still alive, because of that bronze.
"Artwork outlasts the individual, and even the artist's society, itself. My artwork, especially the bronzes, are eternal."
Sanders' moose and wolf sculptures can be seen off Hwy. 2, just east of Spotted Road. Visitors can also view Sanders' sculptures at his home, but he cautions that some of them have sharp edges, so children need to be closely supervised. Sanders lives on Fairview Drive, a gravel road that can be reached from Freya Avenue, just east of its intersection with Market Street.