Illinois-based wildlife artist Pete Zaluzec leads a multifaceted career in art, conservation and outdoor sporting.
His mediums bounce from sketch work, nontraditional prints and oil paintings to stone, bronze and other forms of sculpting.
Zaluzec earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Art Institute of Chicago and started working professionally in the 1970s.
His earliest works featured numerous detailed wood carvings of birds, winning him multiple awards, including “Best in World” in decorative miniature wood at the Ward World Championship Wildfowl Carving Competition for an unprecedented three consecutive years.
His latest works have included lifelike wood and bronze sculptures of North American wildlife, from bears and bison to birds and small mammals.
He lives near Lake Michigan in Lake Villa, Ill., between Chicago and Milwaukee.
Selected as the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition’s featured sculptor for 2013, Zaluzec first got involved with SEWE when he came to the expo in 1998. He has attended all but two SEWE events in the years since.
Q: When, how and where did you first start working as a professional sculptor?
A: I’ve always had an interest in art but didn’t start seriously focusing on sculpture until I was in my 30s. After graduating from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1972, I worked as a social worker and custom woodworker until I settled in at my current company in 1985. At that point, I really had the freedom to explore my artwork on my own terms and began taking bird carving fairly seriously. After years of doing the really tight, realistic carvings, I decided to loosen up a bit and switched to bronze in the late ’90s.
Q: What was it about sculpting that drew you in?
A: I’ve always been a very hands-on type of person. I think it’s the act of coming up with an idea then figuring out how to actually make it that’s most appealing.
Q: Were you an animal lover all of your life or was it a passion that developed over the years?
A: When I was a kid, my parents would take me to the Field Museum (of Natural History) and Chicago-area zoos several times a year, so, like most kids, I had an interest in animals from an early age. When I started doing artwork, animals were a natural fit.
Q: Did you study sculpting and art in general before your college days?
A: Art classes weren’t really available to me in high school, but my mother painted as a hobby, so there were always materials available for me to work with.
Q: What experiences at the Art Institute of Chicago left the biggest impact on you as a sculptor?
A: Although my degree is in painting, my education there had a big impact on how I approach things, no matter what medium I’m working in. Probably the biggest benefit I gained from my experience there was the daily exposure to all the artwork in the institute’s museum. The quality of work I saw there is what I set my standards against early on.
Q: When and how did you start developing your own style?
A: My stylistic approach isn’t as much about a specific type of clay work or imagery as it is about the character or demeanor of my subject. I became enamored with portraying a very relaxed, low-key attitude in my work when I was doing the bird carvings, and this carried over to my bronzes, and the stone and bronze sculpture I’m currently working on.
Q: Does the landscape, scenery and wildlife of Illinois and the Midwest influence your art more than other regions? If so, how?
A: It did when I was working primarily with birds, but since I started working more with mammals, I take several trips out West every year to get reference and find inspiration.
Q: How do you tend to develop and start to shape an idea for a sculpture?
A: For the work I’m doing now, I generally start by searching through my photo reference for a pose I think would work well with the stone. From there, I sketch out my idea and decide which shapes I’m going to define with the river rocks, and which shapes will need to be modeled in wax.
Q: What medium do you prefer these days?
A: I’m really enjoying the stone/bronze pieces right now because the stone adds an element of unpredictability that I don’t often get in my other mediums. There’s something inherently interesting and beautiful in the stone itself, and I never quite know what cracks or changes in the surface will happen when the bronze is poured around it. I like the fact that it forces me to let go a little and allow the medium itself to have some say in the outcome of the piece.
Q: When and how did you start combining bronze and stone into single works?
A: About three or four years ago, I started experimenting with the combination of materials as a departure from my traditional bronze work. I’d just started doing mammals, and I found the stones worked really well to define the large mass of the subject while the bronze was better for defining the more subtle shapes and profiles. I think that the combination of the two materials made for an overall more interesting piece of artwork.
Q: Are there several personalities that come through in your various pieces, from prints to sculptures? Maybe a formal/realism side and a more abstract side?
A: I like artwork that has a nice balance between realism and abstraction, and I try to include both in various degrees in my own work. Since the prints are based on photographs, they lean heavily towards realism, but I also include strong compositional elements and adjust the light and dark values to make for a more striking image.
My sculptures, on the other hand, are much more interpretive, but I still put a lot of effort into keeping them true to the form of my subject, both anatomically and in character.
Yes, you could say there are two different approaches in my work. The prints are generated from photographs, so they do have a more formal realistic quality to them. The sculptures are a bit more interpretive.
Q: Do you travel to and attend many expos like this throughout the year?
A: I used to, but the last few years I’ve spent more of my time going out West to shoot photos.
Q: What is your personal favorite piece in your collection and why?
A: Of the work I’ll have at the show this year, the “Bee-eaters” is my personal favorite. It’s a grouping of birds, and each one has a little different personality.
Q: What can attendees expect to see and hear from you at this year’s SEWE?
A: I’m bringing a large collection of the Gampi images and stone/bronze pieces, as well as a few of my more traditional bronze bird sculptures, and I’m looking forward to spending a bit of time explaining the processes involved in my new work.