"Cresting the Ridge" | Cocobolo Wood (bear), Montana Juniper (branches), and Rocks | 24 x 22 x 17 inches

Illuminations: Artist spotlights

“Taking Flight” | Cobobolo Wood (duck), Manzanita Wood (branch), Black Walnut (base) | 31 x 24 x 23 inches

Twelve years ago, Tom Dean left corporate America and never looked back. Now, he focuses on his passion for woodcarving, and credits his business acumen for his success as an artist.

“With degrees in business administration, management, and marketing, I feel my background makes me a better artist,” Dean says. “Your family and friends can say they like your work, but once you’re out in the real world, that’s where it gets tough.”

Dean loves to fly fish and began his art career carving trout, but he also took a business approach, researching the fly-fishing industry to discover that it was a $62 billion market at the time. Today, fly fishing brings in about $100 billion a year, the artist says, which includes all the gear and guides, but it also includes art.

“Rising” | Snake Wood (fish), Montana Juniper (branch), Jatoba Wood (base), and Rocks | 10 x 10 x 17 inches

“I knew the customer, but I also knew I wasn’t going to make any money by selling art locally,” Dean says. “I got a logo, started an S-corp, took out a line of credit, wrote a business plan and a marketing plan, and off I went.”

While the business plan may have gotten him started, it’s the beauty of exotic woods that keeps him going. Michelangelo once said of sculpting: Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it. For Dean, it’s the material that allows him to discover the best way to find the life inside.

“I start by sketching,” he says. “I’m not absolutely anatomically correct, I’m more visual. I know when it looks good. And it’s really all about the wood. For instance, I love waterfowl hunting, so all I need to do is remember the early mornings out on the water — I’ve seen those ducks a thousand times — I carve them the way I’ve seen these animals my entire life. It’s an organic process.”

His go-to material is cocobolo wood from South America. It’s an extremely hard, dense, oily wood, so he doesn’t need to put a finish on it. It just needs to be buffed, and the finished piece looks like it’s had a fresh coat of varnish.

“Female Pintail” | Kingswood (body), Zircote (head), and Black Walnut (base) 24 x 15 x 9 inches

“No one is working with this wood,” he says. “The color varies from orange to nearly black, and it can have white layers of sap going through it. The feel of it is so smooth, it’s something you want to touch and something you want to rub.”

Since the beginning of his career, he’s created carvings of frogs, bison skulls, eagle feathers, and waterfowl. In black walnut, he’s even rendered a beaver swimming. His newest endeavor is to carve grizzly bears. The richness of the wood, with its myriad striations, combined with Dean’s innate artistry, allows him to bring out not only the exquisite natural beauty of the wood, but the animals’ character as well.

“I’ve done a lot of research on the body of the grizzly bear,” Dean says. “I want to make it look unique … so that the wood will enhance the piece. I go through photographs, visit taxidermists, study artifacts at natural history museums, and, of course, pore through books.”

In 2012, Dean was accepted into the Montana Circle of American Masters, through the Montana Arts Council and National Endowment for the Arts. In March, he’ll show his work at the Outwest Art Show and Sale at the Heritage Inn and the C.M. Russell exhibition to benefit the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana.

“The reason I only do one show a year [in Great Falls] is that we have two kids,” Dean says. “One of the benefits of becoming an artist is that it’s wonderful to show your kids by example, by being passionate, having a plan, and following your dream

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