Sculpted Stories Made of Wood and Bronze
Artist Tyrel Johnson creates work that tells a story, often times one that resonates with childhood
Tyrel Johnson’s sculptures capture moments frozen in time. A draft horse strains against a burden. A lynx pauses, alert. A woman encounters a whitetail stag. Each piece encapsulates a story, calling the viewer into its world. “My goal,” says Johnson, “is to hit people in a familiar place that’s warm, or that resonates with their childhood.”
His own childhood was spent in and around his father’s foundry, he remembers fondly. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Johnson grew up working with metal. From high school to young adulthood, he cultivated a love for woodworking and a talent for math. He started his own construction company, which he ran for years, but he was always an artist first. He never stopped dedicating himself to his craft.
Johnson has made hundreds of pieces over the years, developing his style. “I didn’t want to take a shortcut,” he says. “I didn’t want to just create. I wanted to get it right.” Before ever showing his work, he studied anatomy for seven years to sharpen his technique, in order to later focus on expression. “An architect has to put in long hours at college,” says Johnson. “I don’t see myself any differently.”
Over time, Johnson arrived at his signature pairing of wood and bronze. “It was like learning a new language,” he says. “That combination gave me a way to speak my voice.” In 2015, Johnson was ready to show his first piece, “The Huntress.” He had found that voice in the marriage of form and concept, in limiting his materials, and in clean lines and strong shapes.
Sometimes the inspiration for a piece comes over time and sometimes it arrives fully formed, but the physical process always starts with sketches. Johnson then drafts architectural drawings to confirm the dimensions before sculpting it in clay and, when the sculpture is ready, sending it to the foundry for casting. “I don’t do any foundry work anymore,” says Johnson, laughing. “I’d never have time for the rest if I had a foundry.” Mean- while, Johnson works the wood, which he selects for its beauty, but also for its role in the piece itself.
Consider his piece “Continuance of Action.” Seen from across a room, it’s instantly recognizable, from the slope of the neck to the tension of the legs: a horse dragging a weight. Look closer, though. The horse drags the stone through the walnut base of the piece itself.
Another perfect example is a piece still in development: “Old Man and the Sea.” Inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s book, fisherman and marlin circle each other atop and through a maple base that is both an ocean’s waves and a book’s pages. There’s a mutual respect between fish and fisherman, despite their opposition. The waves roil above and, below, the light plays in the ocean’s depths. Even as a mockup, there’s an equilibrium of medium and form. Every element is essential. The result is layers of meaning, inviting the viewer to interpret on their own terms. “My work is meant for people,” says Johnson. “I want to translate something that’s meaningful for me, so that it can become theirs.”
In March of 2022, Tyrel Johnson took home the Best of Show in the “3 Dimensional” category at the Great Falls Out West Art Show & Sale.