Sanders hammered out a legacy larger than life
The hammer still rests there, right where Bill Sanders left it – atop a work glove, on the back of an unfinished, life-size scrap-metal sculpture of an Afghan hound, next to an unfinished, life-size scrap-metal sculpture of a llama.
It’s the perfect symbol of a Spokane original. The emblem of a man who lived for art, right to the end.
You may not know of Sanders, who died last month at age 76, but you’ve almost certainly seen his sculptures. Most notably, the enormous moose and three wolves at the entrance to the airport are his. He created the commemorative coins for the Centennial Trail. The painted African bronzes – from Masai warriors to lions to hyenas – populating his Mead-area farm were once arrayed in a short-lived Elk theme park. His scrap-metal creations have stood outside Area 58, the secondhand/art store on North Monroe, and dotted yards and private collections all over the place.
Still, Sanders was not well-known here. His passing a month ago was marked only by a small obituary notice. But his life and his art – his stubborn journey, his self-made career, the striking realism of his work, and his devotion to art as nourishment for life – should be the stuff of a larger legacy.
“Art just really was his reason for getting up and going on,” said Leslie Ahrens, his niece. “His health was so poor at the end and he was in such exquisite pain that he could only be active about six hours a day and he could only work about two of those hours. He slept day and night.”
Sanders could be irascible and argumentative, and he kept to himself. Dennis Held, the owner of Area 58, struck up a friendship with Sanders late in his life. Like others, Held talks about the combination of Sanders’ gruffness and his good heart. And, of course, his devotion to art – which only deepened after Sanders’ heart transplant in the mid-1990s.
“He knew that at any given moment he might not wake up,” Held said. “He knew that for 10 years.”
Sanders was born in Alfalfa, Ore., and grew up in Cheney and Mead. He graduated from Mead High in 1953 and served in the Navy before marrying and settling in Portland, working in real estate. That marriage and career did not last, and Sanders moved back to the family home on North Fairview Road in the 1970s.
At that point, Sanders embarked on a completely new direction. He built a foundry and began making bronze sculptures. It’s unclear what led to this radical change – he used to say he was inspired by welding a gladiator costume for Halloween – but he devoted himself to it.
“That became his sole thing,” Ahrens said. “His sole purpose in life.”
The foundry process is difficult, and the self-taught Sanders seemed to take to it naturally, producing lifelike sculptures right away. His early works included Western art pieces such as buffalo, but also figures of Masai people and stories from Greek mythology, like the small sculptures from the mid-1980s in Ahrens’ home. He depicted creatures from all around the globe, from baboons to camels, herons to ostriches.
“He started small and then he got bigger and bigger and bigger,” Ahrens said.
In the late 1980s and early ’90s, Sanders cast 34 life-size African pieces, which he tried to use to populate a theme park in Elk. His idea for My African Acre was that people would pay $2 a head to see the work and learn about Africa. The project never took hold, and Sanders had the pieces moved back to his farm, where they remain.
Sanders had heart problems for years, going back to a heart attack in 1991. He had a heart transplant a few years later, which changed his life in more ways than one. Beyond the heightened awareness of his mortality, Sanders had to confront the fact that he could no longer handle the physical work involved with making huge bronze pieces.
Ahrens said she encouraged him to do more with scrap metal – the medium that came to define his second artistic life. He created giant insects, horses and other figures. A draft horse and carriage sits in Ahrens’ front yard. A plesiosaur skeleton sits in front of Area 58 – though the head has been missing recently after some damage was done to the piece.
“He made what he called Hellenistic art – as faithful a representation of the animal, or whatever he was sculpting, as possible,” Held said.
And yet, he took liberties with that plesiosaur figure – extending the lower jaw – for artistic effect, Held said. “He kept developing as an artist, even down to his last pieces,” he said.
In an interview with The Spokesman-Review in 2008, Sanders talked about art as a human legacy and as a positive force within his own life.
“It makes you feel good,” he said. “I figure art improves your life, so I haven’t been a total zero. … You look around at all the civilizations that have come and gone – the only thing left is the art.”
Sanders died March 12, the day after his 76th birthday. He’d suffered one health problem after another, exacerbated by his weak heart, and on that day he drove himself to the VA hospital feeling ill. He died shortly thereafter.
Now the only thing left is the art – the art and the example. That hammer. That lifetime of work. Banging away instead of giving up.
“This is the last thing he was working on,” Ahrens said, looking at a photo of the hammer resting on the dog. “We’re not touching it. That’s exactly where he laid it last.”
Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@ spokesman.com.