In many ways, the construction bid Dan Snarr made on a childhood friend’s roof was the most important job of his life.
Snarr, who had been working in construction and as a sort of jack-of-all trades since he was 11, ended up spending more time talking to the friend’s father — a sculptor — and expressed an interest in his work.
The result of that conversation sits on a shelf in his studio: a cowboy riding a bull, captured mid-buck in bronze.
“He gave me a box of clay and sent me home and told me to see what I could come up with, and I came up with that bull rider. It wasn’t in that good of shape the first time I took it, but he kept critiquing it and telling me where I needed help,” Snarr said. “Through the years he’s just been a great mentor and a great teacher. I just keep going back and learning more and more. It’s just a happy accident that I was friends with his son going to school. It could have been a lot different. I could have just been a construction guy still.”
Today, Snarr, 50, works full-time as a sculptor. His projects include the bull displayed outside of Tooele High School and not one, but two life-size statues of Theodore Roosevelt, the latest of which will soon be shipped to its new home in Longmont, Colorado.
The path from being given a box of clay to crafting three-dimensional likenesses of former U.S. presidents, however, has been a long and twisted one.
Snarr started in construction, but drifted across the country — and the world — taking jobs like training horses, driving trucks, welding or mining for gold in Africa.
“If it sounded like an adventure or something outdoors that I thought sounded like fun, I’d go and do it. I just never fit into any certain slot,” he said. “The common thread was that I always had a notepad by me, drawing.”
After marrying his wife, Lisa, Snarr returned to construction, where he stayed until his mentor suggested he move on and get some experience working in a foundry, where pieces are cast in bronze, instead.
“It was good to me. I really enjoyed it. I got to do some great projects. The metal work is just another form of artwork. It was really a lot of fun. But it takes its toll. It was great to start making a little money on it,” he said.
After working at the foundry for 14 years, Snarr said he realized he needed to decide to devote his time to either art or metal-working. Two years later, he said, he feels more confident than ever in his choice.
“I finally came to the decision that I had to be a foundry man or an artist, and my art’s a lot more important than the foundry work to me, so here I am. I jumped off the dock and went swimming,” he said. “I think I’ve made it past the scariest part.”
While Snarr has no formal training beyond a few life drawing classes, careful practice throughout the years has been a valuable teacher.
“I’ve always drawn. Ever snce I can remember I’ve always drawn, done charcoal, things like that,” he said. “I haven’t done a lot of color work as far as painting — one of my brothers is a really fine painter — and someday I might get into it, but I really like the black and white, the forms and textures and stuff. Maybe that’s why being a sculptor’s such a natural fit for me.”
However, he said, he quickly learned that being a full-time artist is a job like any other.
“I’m learning in the art business, it’s 85 percent business and 15 percent art. There’s a whole lot more business than art. There’s a few realizations that have come about: people don’t beat a path to your door to buy your stuff; you have to actually go out and represent yourself,” he said. “I think a lot of people, when they make the jump, they think that people are just going to naturally want to buy their art, and that’s not so. You have to really have a presence and put a lot of effort into showing your stuff and getting a name for yourself.”
Part of the effort Snarr has been making is increasing his online presence — not an easy task for someone who had been living comfortably offline with a decade-old cell phone. Snarr bought and has learned to use a smartphone, laptop and digital camera to display his work over the internet.
“I’ve learned to be successful, I have to embrace some things that I’ve avoided, make them not scary anymore,” he said. “If I just run from things that scare me, I’ll be back either working construction or at the foundry or driving truck or whatever I used to do. It’s kind of a small price to pay.”
The process from molding clay to casting bronze takes several months. Snarr molds a model one-fourth or one-fifth of the size of the finished product, then, if the client approves the model, multiplies all of the measurements to make a larger but otherwise identical figure that is cut into pieces for easier molding. The core is made with clay-covered foam, which is then used to make a rubber mold. From the rubber mold, a statue gets a fiberglass shell, and then a hollow wax copy. The wax is dipped into a slurry about the consistency of pancake batter, which is dusted with sand about the consistency of granulated sugar. The process is repeated several times before the wax is melted out of the figure, and then is dipped into liquid bronze.
The pieces — for example, arms and legs and a trunk of a person, are welded together to make the finished product.
“It’s like a puzzle,” Snarr said. “A really big, fun puzzle to put back together.”
Sculptures take several months to complete, ranging from seven or eight months for smaller projects to double that for larger projects. Snarr’s work ranges from smaller pieces to larger-than-life monuments. His first monument, the first Roosevelt statue, was commissioned in 2001 for a park in Longmont, Colorado. This second Roosevelt piece will be placed kiddy-corner to the first.
Well-documented figures, such as Roosevelt, are fairly easy to sculpt, he said, because of the availability of photographs from various angles. Other projects, however, are more challenging in that respect, he said.
“I’ve done some commissions of children and family members and stuff, and when you do a private person like that, the different family members all have different pictures, so you’re trying to compile one likeness out of 20 different pictures,” he said. “It’s a lot harder to do a family-type thing, and with children, you have pictures of when they’re 3, 7, and 9 — kids change so fast. Children are hard to do.”
Those projects also tend to be more emotional because of the family’s loss; however, he said, they are also often his most rewarding projects.
“So many times you see families hurting and you wish you could do something to make them feel better. I’m lucky enough that I can do a little something to help. But that’s hard, too, because it’s hard to immerse yourself in other people’s pain for months on end, because it takes months to do the process,” he said. “You’re immersing yourself in somebody else’s grief for so long, but it’s some of the most rewarding work I’ve done and I’ve made some great friends through the process of it and I’ve really grown to love the families that I work with.”
Snarr said he does not aspire to get famous or rich from his art. What he would like to do, though, he said, is help contribute to a positive community shift he believes art can bring.
“I think that cultures are judged by their art and their archetecture, and I think that also plays into how the rest of the world responds to those places. A cold, hard culture with no humanity to it, no artwork, I think think when people lead their daily lives going through a society that doesn’t have a lot of that brings kind of a unseen energy to the place. I think places exude energy, and I think when people are drawn to dark places they absorb a dark energy and when they’re around art and culture and stuff they absorb a good energy,” he said. “One of the jobs of an artist is to bring that better energy to the world. Some people misuse it and bring dark energy to the world. But I think it’s one of the contributions that would suffer if I got caught up in the money side of it.”
He said he feels sculpture can affect people in a different way than other mediums, too, on a personal level. When working for the foundry, he helped to install a life-size sculpture of a pioneer wagon train, he said, and a woman approached the sculpture with an elderly man who appeared to be blind. Snarr said the woman guided the man’s hands over the parts of the sculpture — a wagon wheel, the saddle of a horse, the bronze limbs of the pioneers — allowing the man to experience the work of art despite his disability.
Snarr said that instance is one of many that drove him to taking the plunge — and reminds him why he stays with it. And for the first time in his life, he said, he feels like he fits in his own life.
“It took me long enough to figure it out,” he said. “It wasn’t that I was miserable doing those other things — I never did anything I didn’t like. But I found my place. Not everybody does.”