By Al Parker
In his downtown Charlevoix studio, sculptor Todd Warner puts flame to his first Dominican Excalibur cigar of the day, exhales a plume of fragrant smoke and recalls his early artistic efforts.
I was always drawing stuff, he says with a chuckle. From the time I could pick up a pencil. My kindergarten teacher said We need to foster this.
Decades later, Warners clay-and-wood works include life-size cowboys, Indians, butlers and fishermen. He has a special affinity for animals and crafts unique beasts from armadillos to zebras.
Ive always loved animals, says Warner, who grew up in Farwell, near Clare. And I really like the more interesting animals wart hogs, rhinos not the sleek one. I spent some time in Africa and really want to go back.
Described as sophisticated whimsy, his works can be found in lobbies, living rooms, zoos, museums, offices and airports across the nation. His creations are cornerstones of collections at the corporate headquarters of USA Today, McDonalds, Gannett Publishing and Detroit Tigers and Little Caesars owner Mike Illitch.
Celebrities who own at least one of Warners works include Randy Travis, David Copperfield, Kelly McGillis, Charlie Gibson and Zsa Zsa Gabor.
THEY HAVE PERSONALITIES
As a boy, he learned to move silently through the woods. I learned to walk quietly up to chipmunks and deer or they would come close to me, explains Warner. There was a communication both ways. I dont believe animals operate purely on instinct. They have personalities its just whether you can crack the code.
Warner studied art at Central Michigan University and began sculpting professionally in 1967. Though it was 44 years ago, Warner still remembers his first sale. It was a small rhinoceros, he recalls. A doctor bought it. I tried to buy it back several times, but he wouldnt part with it.
From 1968 to 72 he taught art in a number of schools and absolutely loved it. Along the way there was also a stint as a construction worker. Eventually Warner had to make a choice to follow his passion for producing fine art or continuing a career in education.
Choosing the life of an artist, he moved to south Florida in 1982. It was there that his signature sculptures of flat, elongated figures, with their exaggerated personalities, were born. I love working with clay, he explains. Im not really a chip-at-marble sort of guy.
But hes not restricted to only sculpture, as the colorful paintings that line his studio walls will attest. They capture the light humor so prevalent in almost all of Warners works.
On a recent sunny summer morning a small cluster of teens strolls through his Bridge Street studio, pointing at his colorful works, smiling and giggling quietly.
I think the humor appeals to people, says Warner. Its not slapstick. Its subtle. But the humors not a conscious thing. I dont try to make them funny, thats just the way they turn out. The works take on a frame of mind I have when working on them. It comes from deep inside me. The world has gotten too damn serious and we can use some comic relief.
Warners sculptures are composed of three elements to look like a single substance. The head is sculpted in clay, the flat skinny body is wood and the legs are usually steel. Sculpted epoxy resin then covers it completely. Hand painting then brings out the fanciful personality of the creature.
To learn more about these creations, go to www.toddwarnerstudios.com .
And whose works does Warner admire?
Just about anybody with innovative thoughts, he notes. I get inspiration from people like that. It keeps the fire going.
Among his favorite artists are Sante Fe watercolorist Fran Larson, sculptor Ted Gall of Ojai, Ca. and sculptor Bob Black. Theyre all producing very high quality work, are extremely creative and innovative.
After 20 years in Florida, Warner returned to Northern Michigan. He has a small farm in Norwood, south of Charlevoix, where his working studio is located. Hes surrounded there by his menagerie of horses, mules, dogs, cats, birds and other critters. I love the four seasons in the Midwest, he says. And I love the people.
Its been a really good life. Few people get to do what they really want to do. Ive been real fortunate and its been a lot of hard work. Ive seen some incredibly talented people who werent as lucky as me. I was very fortunate and still am.