Roger Fowler’s custom sculptures try to capture a fish’s unique light
NATURAL LIGHT—AND BY EXTENSION, its relationship to color—has long fascinated artists. It was the light of Provence, after all, that brought Van Gogh to Pays d’Arles in 1888. Other painters followed.
For Roger Fowler, it was the light from within that drew his attention— more specifically the light that seems to emanate from trout. A desire to capture that light inspired his first sculpture.
“Twenty-five years ago, I was working at a job that required lots of travel,” Fowler said. “Our daughter was starting kindergarten, and I wanted to find a way to spend more time close to home. When I was traveling for work, I’d stop into art galleries. Trout were a great interest of mine. I grew up in Texas, but spent summer vacations on the Taylor River in Colorado, fly fishing with my dad and my brother. The galleries didn’t have many trout sculptures. And those that they had were not any I’d want to own. Every sculpture had an opaque patina that didn’t reflect light. It was the same patina you’d see on mammals. I wanted to see if I could find a way to make trout look more realistic.
“I had no artistic training whatsoever,” Fowler said. “I didn’t know about the things you weren’t supposed to do. But it was pretty easy to carve the shape of a trout. And I began experimenting with different finishes to get that reflection I was imagining. After a year, I had a sculpture of a rainbow trout about eight inches long. To me, it looked real. I took
it to a gallery in Albuquerque, where we lived at the time, and they sold it. I made more pieces, and they sold those, too.”
For the next few years, Fowler worked on his sculptures while his wife, Cathy, worked outside the home to make ends meet. Once Roger started selling enough sculptures, they made a clean break, moving from Albuquerque to Oklahoma. He and Cathy have worked together in their studio ever since.
“Cathy assists me, in addition to doing her own writing and artwork, helping create our wax molds and handling the books,” Fowler said. “She handles a lot of the details that enable me to work on the finishing.”
Handling the details is an aspect of the Fowlers’ work that they take great pride in. Where many sculptors make the initial model of a work and then outsource the remaining steps that lead to a finished sculpture to a foundry (fashioning a mold of the model, making waxes, chasing them, pouring the metal, adding color, welding the sculpture together), the Fowlers are engaged with almost every step of the process.
“I work from photos as source material, often ones I’ve taken of fish I’ve caught and released,” he said. “All of our work is produced in our studio, other than pouring the hot metal.” To date, the Fowlers’ sculptures have ranged from 8 inches (a desktop rainbow trout that starts at $975) to 84 inches (a sailfish, which costs a bit more). There are many sizes and species in between.
“When I began working on bonefish, I was still using bronze,” Fowler said. “But I couldn’t make it work. That was when I started working with stainless steel.”
To date, the Fowlers have produced permit, tarpon, bonefish, Atlantic salmon, redfish, speckled trout, snook, bass, and false albacore sculptures, along with rainbow trout, brown trout, and steelhead.
Roger Fowler no longer works through galleries; in fact, every new work starts as a customer request.
“We don’t accept any deposits, and we won’t ship a sculpture until a customer has given us their approval,” Fowler explained. “I like to think that this makes it easy for people to order. In twenty-five years, I’ve only had three sculptures come back. And I’ve never had anyone take advantage of our business model. Most of our customers are fly anglers, and they are an honorable group of people.”
Most years, the Fowlers complete 40 sculptures. Though they may do limited editions of 10 from the same casting, Fowler can add nuances— per customer request—to make each piece unique. “After all,” he added, “every fish that swims looks a little different.”
Over the years, Fowler’s work has cultivated an esteemed clientele that includes Jack Nicklaus, Tom Brokaw, Dick Cheney, and the recently deceased George H.W. Bush.
Though a steady flow of orders often keeps him in his workshop, Fowler certainly makes time to fish. “Thirty minutes from my house there’s some of America’s best winter opportunities for big fish,” he explained. “The outflow from some power plants here draws in big hybrid stripers. I use a two-handed rod and cast overhead with a shooting head and a running line. You’ve got to toss it a hundred feet and get a six-inch baitfish pattern out there fast. People don’t understand how neat these fish are.”
In the coming year, Fowler is embarking on a new salmonid project.
“I’m starting a limited edition of each of the cutthroat species that are indigenous to the Rockies,” he said, “so people can own a sculpture of the trout they catch close to home. I’m working on a little Rio Grande cutty right now. Trying to get the color right is like trying to paint a sunrise or sunset. I’m having to work really hard.”
If their previous efforts are any indication, Roger and Cathy Fowler will get this project right, too.