Ted Schnack’s life as a sculptor began in a rather abstract way— in the red dirt of east Africa. He was pursuing a lifelong dream to hunt Cape buffalo. After what he described as “a running adrenaline dump of dirt, blood and flying brass,” his life was changed that day.
“Little did I know then the affect that old, mud-caked, battle-scarred bull would have on me,” Ted told me recently. “I wanted to spend the rest of my life looking at that Cape buffalo skull as a daily reminder, but that just wasn’t in the cards. There was a whole different game brewing.”
Ted had left the skull behind to be prepped, packed and sent to the States. But in the sometime swampy waters of African mail and international shipping, the skull never arrived.
“I finally resigned myself to the fact that it was never coming,” he admitted. “But I had this nagging desire to have something to put my hands on. Then the wheels began to turn.
“I have always felt deeply connected to art and fascinated by the power and three dimensions of bronze. So on a whim, I decided to try creating a first-sized bronze bust of the buffalo to commemorate the hunt. I never would have tried it if the skull had arrived. It was fate that a lost Cape buffalo skull changed my life.”
It was likely the same type of fate and creative spark that took hold of Ted after a do-it-yourself bighorn sheep hunt in his home state of Colorado. That experience drove him to the keyboard to share the story. Ted went from never having written anything longer than a letter home, to having a number of adventure stories grace the pages of Sporting Classics.
Ted has been a lifelong lover of art so when he began working in bronze, it was like a beast inside had been unchained. He was 52 when he cast his first piece—a late start for such an undertaking. To add to the challenge, Ted’s day job did not afford much time to sculpt.
Ted was spending 70 percent of his time dodging bullets and bombs in the Middle East. His “cushy vacation” spots included Iraq, Pakistan, Kosovo, Jordan and Bangladesh, where he served as a Tactical Police Instructor for the Department of Justice.
“It was good money and challenging work,” he said. “Half our wages were hazard and danger pay, and we earned every cent of it. But no, not exactly a place to start a career in art.”
Ted knew he would eventually leave the overseas life behind because it was too hard to concentrate while trying to sculpt in dicey locations behind the front lines. One of his first creations was a full-bodied elk, Rut Strut, that was the size of a schnauzer. “I work in an oil-based clay, “which gives me the ability to sculpt any time I want,” he explained. “But it’s also extremely easy to damage before the mold-making process. “I had to get my sculpted clay piece out of Pakistan without damage, getting arrested or causing a panic at the airport. It was going to be a little tricky.
“I cut the elk in pieces, froze them to firm up the clay, carefully packed them and hoped for the best.
“The armature is a made up of metal, with wires running out to help support the legs. Imagine what that looked like coming through the airport x-ray machine,” he laughed. “I saw it on the screen and it looked like a plastic bomb pronged with detonator wires. The old, slump-shouldered cop watching the screen sat straight up and pulled the bag aside, although he didn’t reach for the AK-47 leaning against the table, which I took to be a good sign.
“This was the moment of truth. He called over several more cops and, after my song and dance, they congratulated me on the elk and sent me on my way.”
As a self-taught artist, Ted realized that he had to trust his artistic instincts. “The more I do, the more I realize I have to see things, both good and bad, and sense opportunity in the work. Once those whispering voices have quieted, and the opportunity is realized, you know the piece is done and ready for casting. “As an artist we are influenced by all our experiences of life,” Ted noted. “And I consider myself a hunter-artist. Notice I put hunter first. I have found that the best wildlife artists are hunters. Bob Kuhn was a hunter and has had the single-most effect on me as an artist.
“Kuhn understood gesture and character and finding ways to bring subtle power to his paintings to best show off the animal. He was the master of the whole spectrum of nature, from the most nuanced of moments to full- out action and everything in between. He said ‘nature gives us the raw materials . . . it is up to us as artists to find the art.’
“I can tell by looking if an artist is a hunter. I can sense it in their work. The hunter understands gesture, character and slight nuances of animals on a much deeper level. As an example, a 7-year-old bighorn sheep carries itself differently than a 13-year-old ram. Look at a 25-year-old and a man at 60.
“I’m not looking to make animal replicas or focus on what will sell. I’m looking to drill down and find the character of the animals. I am keeping true to the anatomy, yet using a loose enough sculpting style to give the bronze a chance to show its true power.”
Ted went on to say that hunters engage with the animals on a much deeper level.
“Through the whole array of emotions,” he said, “I’ve lived around these animals my whole life. We see and feel those animals through a much more personal optic.”
According to Ted, sculpting is another way to manifest his deep connection with the animals and the wild places they call home. “You’re out there in the grit and the grime, in blizzards and scorching heat, precarious cliffs and other challenges that can easily kill you. We battle through exhaustion and the struggles just to see them, to smell their musk, to possess them, to consume them, to touch them, and imagine where they have been, what they’ve done.”
Ted considers himself a storyteller in bronze.
“Some of the stories are obvious. The vintage hunter (The Cliff Hanger) hanging by his fingertips, dropping a rope to a bighorn ram that has been shot and crashed over a cliff. It leads someone viewing it to ask: ‘What the heck is he going to do when he lassoes that ram?’
“I like drama and I like action—trying to capture a moment. A moment of importance in that animal’s life, because not every moment is worthy to be captured in a piece.”
It’s the slight gestures and nuances that bring Ted’s pieces to life. The face of an old ram with his battered horns worn by time and battle. The slight head cock and wider eyes of a mule deer buck about to blow out, the deep wrinkles of wisdom of the Cape buffalo, nose up, eyes burning, looking for trouble. Or a more obvious story – a cheetah running down its prey—a balance of grace, momentum, inertia, that moment of life and death. The timeless story of nature.
“Considering he is self-taught and has only been at it for six years is astonishing,” said Sporting Classics Editor-in-Chief Ryan Stalvey. Ted’s unique work has a bold voice that has turned me into a fan and personal collector.”
Putting his life and future on the line, Ted Schnack decided to dive in and not look back, taking the ‘calculated risks’ that have brought him countless times to the wilderness or war zone.
“For me, the best of life is a little close to the edge,” Ted concluded. “A little risk is good for the soul.”