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Big & Bronze: For sculptor Bud Burger, life really does imitate art

MONTE DRAPER | BEMIDJI PIONEER Bud Burger describes the waxing process on a whitetail deer in his studio outside of Bemidji. In the background is his 8-foot tall grizzly in its wax form before it was cast in bronze.1 / 5
SUBMITTED PHOTO You can't ask for a more beautiful vista for Burger's full size bronze elk,. outside the Lone Tree, Colorado Cabela's.2 / 5
SUBMITTED PHOTO Sculptor Bud Burger, left watches as a full-size elk is set in place at the entrance of a new Cabela's store in Lone Tree, Colo.3 / 5
SUBMITTED PHOTO The amount of detail in a full-size bronze sculpture by Bud Burger makes his life-size wildlife creations a sought-after commodity.4 / 5
SUBMITTED PHOTO This monstrous 7-and-a-half-foot bronze grizzly bear by local artist Bud Burger is one of two of his sculptures sitting at a Cabela's store in Lone Tree, Colo.5 / 5

BEMIDJI -- Bud Burger seems like a character out of an English novel -- the big game hunter -- wealthy, successful, eccentric.

But he's much more than that. Burger is an artist, businessman, talker, explainer, appreciator, conservationist and sculptor

He is a creator.

"I think there's a lot of similarities between running a business and being an artist," he said. "Both require creativity."

Burger and his brother, Ted, used to operate Burger Brothers Sporting Goods, a Twin Cities chain that sold everything hunting and fishing. Now, they pursue their passions while living in the Bemidji area. For Bud, that means creating all scale of bronze wildlife. That includes life-size.

"The distance from the eye to the ear is key," he said, motioning to the lifeless but still intimidating eyes of a grizzly bear in his studio.

If Burger is a character, or caricature, of the rifle-toting big game hunters of 19th century vintage, his home is the set for the book-based movie. It's a monument to monuments. But despite the exotic and sometimes enormous creatures that fill the great room of the home -- and there are many -- Burger might be the most monumental of them all.

"My father was a hunter," he said, "and we just expanded it, the appreciation of wildlife."

When you open the doors to the home Burger shares with his wife, Jan, the eyes consume you. There are hundreds of them, peering from every corner and wall -- water buffalo, elk, deer, moose, a leopard, a lion, a Kodiak bear.

"Alaska," Burger said, looking up at the giant trophy.

Burger began sculpting "in earnest" about 10 years ago, he said. He's since created thousands of bronze reliefs, and about 30 life-size animals that he takes to the Safari Club International show in Las Vegas each year. In his garage studio, and eight-foot tall bear, with a styrofoam skeleton and wax skin was in the process of being chipped to pieces, and melted so the wax could be re-used. A few feet away, a whitetail buck looked silently out the window, its bronze fur showing the millions of etches made into the wax by Burger before the cast went to a Colorado foundry. Burger travels with his creations when they're made from wax to bronze, working the metal for the perfect amount of contrast.

"It's not art without contrast," he said.

Burger's life-size creations, including an elk that overlooks a busy roadway in Lone Tree, Colo. outside a Cabela's, are impressive, but their beginnings are humble.

"I had a guy come in and want to borrow one of our pieces of taxidermy. He needed it for a subject for sculpting," Burger said. "I told him to bring me some wax."

Burger played around with the substance. Then came "Old Clem."

"He was a duck hunter," Burger said, pointing to a small figure with a dog at his feet, fishing at a pond. The tiny bronze scene sits on an end table in Burger's home. "So, I created this storyline around this character."

From there, Burger sculpted a grouse, he said, eventually working his way up to the massive grizzly bears he's made. Price: $55,000.

"One thing leads to another," he said, " and the more you work and do these shows, that leads to more opportunities. A little success leads to more enthusiasm, right?

Justin Glawe
Reporting on crime, courts and Beltrami county government. Follow me on Twitter @JustinGlawe.
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