Casts of Character
This story originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of WV Living magazine.
The Native American hunter, all bulging muscle and sinew, lies close to his horse’s neck as the beast reaches full gallop. He clutches a flint-tipped spear in his right hand. With his left he holds a buffalo hide, draping the skin over himself and his pony.
We are witnessing a “buffalo jump,” where a disguised horseman drives a herd of bison into the path of a hunting party. In milliseconds the hide will fall away and the stunned herd will be doomed. But the climax never occurs. The whole scene is frozen in time.
This is the work of sculptor Burl Jones. He takes characters and scenes from the adventure magazines he read as a kid growing up near Charleston and—with clay, bronze, and an eye for detail—hits the pause button.
Like so many young West Virginia boys and girls, Jones spent his childhood was outdoors. He remembers thrilling over the rabbits and squirrels his father brought home after hunting trips and began accompanying his father on those trips as soon as he was old enough to hold a gun. He fantasized about the American West—the Rocky Mountains and the badlands of Montana that he read about in Jack O’Connor’s stories for Outdoor Life magazine.
Jones finally got a chance to see those landscapes himself when, after finishing dental school at West Virginia University in 1966, he went to Montana for two years to work on an Indian reservation. It was during this time in Big Sky Country that he first encountered the bronze work of renowned artist Robert Scriver, who had a gallery on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. He began seeking out other bronze artists after that, but only as an admirer. Jones had an artistic bent—he’d carved a few gunstocks, and he’d tried painting for a while until his colorblindness made the exercise too frustrating—but did not consider himself an artist. “I was intrigued by it (but) it never registered in my mind that it was something I’d do,” he says.
He returned to West Virginia in 1968 and set up a dental practice in Sissonville. His artistic impulses continued to goad him, but it wasn’t until 1980 that Jones finally tried his hand at sculpture, making little figurines from dental wax. He learned by observing other artists and asking questions, but it was largely an effort of trial and error. “Mostly error,” he says.
He tried to cast his miniature sculptures in copper and bronze, the way he was taught to make dental prostheses in dentistry school, but was not satisfied with the results. “I didn’t know enough about the casting process. I discovered if I’m going to do this, I’m going to have to enlist the aid of a professional foundry,” he says.
After a lot of shopping around, Jones finally found a foundry he liked and began having his sculptures turned into bronzes. He had no intentions to sell the pieces—sculpture was nothing more than a creative outlet at the time—but his work started attracting attention from friends and, eventually, from art galleries in Montana.
In 1982, Jones sold his dentistry practice in West Virginia and moved with his wife to Livingstone, Montana where he spent half his time tackling cavities and root canals and the other half sculpting birds, bears, horses, fish, Native American warriors, and coonskin-capped mountaineers. He eventually opened his own art gallery and, in 1992, decided to quit dentistry and give his full attention to art.
No matter what he’s making, each of Jones’s sculptures begins with in-depth research. Jones is a stickler for detail. “I’ve got shelves full of books that show profiles and dimensions on hawks and eagles. They have a certain number of feathers. They have a proportion of wing to tail to body.” For living human subjects, he’s been known to make exhaustive photographic records and even measure the person’s facial features.
Small pieces can take up to a month to sculpt, plus two or three months at the foundry. For portraiture projects, he prefers to have at least a year. To date, Jones has created more than 225 limited edition sculptures. His work is a mainstay at Tamarack, West Virginia’s art and craft showcase in Beckley, and prized by collectors who share the artist’s affinity for the outdoors. His reputation for intensely detailed work has led to larger projects including a monument outside WVU’s Alumni Center, a statue of a coal miner on the state Capitol grounds, and the bust outside Marshall University’s Joan C. Edwards Stadium commemorating players killed in the 1970 plane crash.
Jones plans to do three or four sculptures this year. Now 74, he says he doesn’t get as much time to sculpt as he’d like. He splits his time between a home in Huntley, Montana, a “medium-sized” ranch in the northeastern part of the state, and a residence back home in Kanawha County. Between his grandkids’ ballgames, marketing his work, tending to his ranch, hunting, and fishing, there’s not as much time to spend in his art studio. But sculpture remains Jones’ favorite pastime. “I could work at it every day and be happy doing it,” he says.
He’s currently finishing work on a small eagle, its wings canted and tail feathers spread as the bird turns in midair. In life, this moment would be over in a split second. But soon the sculpture will go to the foundry and the eagle—along with a small piece of its creator—will be frozen in time, forever.