Every year, millions of people can see Bill Sanders’ realistic, life-size animal sculptures in Spokane. The most prominent are a nearly 12-foot-tall bull moose – with 6-foot-wide antlers – and a trio of timber wolves prowling the basalt water feature at Spokane International Airport’s entrance.
Then there’s a grizzly bear guarding a Browne’s Addition condo building, named for its mascot. A stately Percheron horse fills the front yard of a home on East 17th Street.
Meanwhile, an impressive collection enlivens Sanders’ farmland south of Mead.
There, a pride of lions, baboons, wart hogs, two Masai hunters, a baby zebra and others share a windswept pasture with three live llamas.
Sanders, 73, an accomplished artist, taught himself to sculpt. Many of his exotic creatures are bronze and painted in realistic hues.
Others are welded metal, like the Stegosaurus, Triceratops and Saber Tooth Tiger also on display at his farm.
“Art has given me a reason for living. Without my art I have no reason for getting up,” said Sanders, adding he gladly jettisoned a real estate career 30 years ago to pursue his passion.
It’s a talent he stumbled into after a Halloween party where his gladiator costume got the “most hideous” award.
Determined to do better, Sanders went home and decided to try sculpting the Roman icon in clay.
“I discovered I had some talent,” he said, still seemingly surprised by his natural gift.
From there, he taught himself the age-old craft of bronze casting, a labor-intensive, dangerous process. He excelled at it, eventually turning out dozens of life-size animal statues.
Sanders said he strived for physical accuracy on each one, rendering them in convincing poses with textured coats and arresting eyes.
“All of my work conveys some kind of life,” said Sanders, who’s imagined a back story for every statue.
In 1990, he opened the Bronze World Foundry in Spokane.
For the next six years, he poured explosive 2,000-degree liquid bronze into sculptures weighing anywhere from 500 pounds to a ton or more.
Every statue took him six months or more to create.
“When I was younger and doing this, I was extremely enthusiastic,” Sanders said. “Once I’d get started, why, I could work for 20 hours at a crack and not even realize it.”
A heart attack about 12 years ago abruptly ended his bronze pouring days. But it didn’t squelch his desire to keep working.
Despite slim survival odds, Sanders underwent heart transplant surgery and a year-long convalescence.
Once he got home and felt well enough, he switched media and began sculpting in steel, turning out such credible creatures as the Cape Buffalo, now on an Arizona ranch, and a male, silverback gorilla, which he’s still working on in his studio.
He likes to work alone. No apprentice. No agent. No grants.
Though he had to take a partner earlier to help handle the searing crucibles of molten metal, he decided to go it alone when he started using steel.
“I couldn’t hire anybody to help out (in the studio) because (the designs) are all in my head,” Sanders said.
And he’s especially grateful for the second, “free life” the donor heart has given him.
After the transplant, he churned out a string of sculptures – which he believes are positive contributions to mankind.
Nancy Santschi-Apodaca has collected several of Sanders’ pieces. “They are really lifelike and they all have their own characters,” she said.
The Spokane business owner donated the airport sculptures in memory of her father.More recently, she acquired and renamed the former St. Anne’s Children’s Home after the pelican statue she commissioned from Sanders. The bird is situated outside the building, at 707 N. Cedar St.
Of late, Sanders said, “all the damn drugs” he takes to prevent his system from rejecting his second-hand heart are wreaking havoc on his aging body.
He’s in chronic pain, making large-scale sculpting impossible, he said.
“It’s frustrating and depressing because I’ve got all this ability but I don’t have the body,” Sanders said.
Yet knowing that people enjoy his work takes some of the sting out of it.
“It makes you feel good,” he said. “I figure art improves your life, so I haven’t been a total zero.”
In fact, his creations, some of which could last millenia, may become a part of the world’s only enduring legacy.
“You look around at all the civilizations that have come and gone – the only thing left is the art,” he said.
Sanders said if he’s lucky enough to get a health reprieve, he’s visualized a series of smaller animals he wants to make.
“Hope springs eternal,” he said, adding he hopes one of these warm, sunny days he’ll good enough to get back outdoors and get started on something.