By Tania Soussan
Mark Dyke’s bronze sandhill crane is so graceful, it could be a sculpture of a ballerina, and that’s no coincidence.
The Albuquerque artist spends a lot of time in nature, including in the Rio Grande Bosque, watching the cranes landing, taking off and, yes, dancing. Sandhill cranes are known for their complex courtship displays, which can include synchronized bows, wing spreads and leaps.
“It’s so beautiful, right?” Dyke said, adding that he worked with his daughter Stephanie, a professional ballerina, to refine the crane composition. She critiqued a wax sculpture version of the bird as if it was a dancer and made suggestions, such as having the wing dip down or twist back a little more or moving a leg slightly in one direction or another.
“She has been really helpful in making the sandhill crane very dynamic and very kind of joyful,” Dyke said.
He and his wife, Jennifer Barol, rescue and foster dogs, cats, chickens and fish, including newborn kittens that require round-the-clock bottle feeding. They have fostered more than 100 cats and kittens for Animal Humane New Mexico.
“It just brings up this empathetic and loving relationship with the animals,” Dyke said.
He has incorporated that deep connection to animals into his sculptures. In addition to doing his own pieces, he creates small memorial sculptures on commission for people who have lost beloved pets.
Dyke, who describes his age as “at least 64” and says age has a lot to do with how you see yourself, has kept busy in his retirement after many years as a professor at Eastern New Mexico University and New Mexico Highlands University. He mountain bikes a few times a week and spends time with family and friends. Working from his home studio, he also devotes 30 or 40 hours a week to sculpting.
“It’s close to a full-time job again, but it’s something I love,” he said, adding that he believes it’s important to pursue a passion in retirement.
Before sculpting a crane or any of his animals, Dyke spends a couple of days reading and researching, followed by another couple of days sketching. Only then does he begin the actual sculpting, which takes three or four days.
Once he has a wax mold ready for casting, he drives to Santa Fe to meet someone from Madd Castings, a foundry north of Denver that produces the bronze versions of his work. When Dyke gets the cast sculpture back, he applies patina and several layers of shellac.
“When I’m sculpting an animal, I really feel like I’m making contact,” he said. “The three dimensions are so satisfying because you kind of explore the animal from every direction. And I’m making this wonderful connection with it through touch. … It’s a rich experience that I just love.”
Dyke hopes that when people look at his animals, they also feel something. That can involve touching the sculpture, he added. He said he wants to show how human technology — such as the roads we build and the plastics we use — is affecting animals. He also wants to build compassion for their plight.
A shared sensibility and passion for animals led Dyke and fellow artist David D’Agostino to begin working together. D’Agostino was impressed when he visited Dyke and saw all the work that he and his wife were doing for rescued cats and other animals.
“I think Mark is a great guy. He’s very open to different ideas and … we just had a real give and take,” D’Agostino said, adding that they met regularly in Mark’s backyard during the COVID-19 pandemic to talk about animals and life in general. “I consider him a really, really good friend and not just as an artist.”
The pair formed the Bestiary Collective, a group of artists working to shed light on the estrangement that results from people using animals for food, sport and profit. Animals also have become collateral damage to the effects of climate change, environmental crises and habitat encroachment, according to the artists.
D’Agostino makes photo dioramas that incorporate found objects as well as small hand-crafted houses and his own abstract paintings to reveal the essence of a bewildering world for animals that are having to respond to drought, fires or the effects of pathogens in the environment. As part of their collaboration, he included some of Dyke’s small sculptures in the dioramas.
Chosen Blindness, a show featuring Dyke’s bronze and clay animal sculptures and D’Agostino’s diorama-based photography, was held in January at [AC]2, the Albuquerque Contemporary Art Center. The show was named a Top Five Pick by Santa Fe-based Southwest Contemporary, which publishes information about contemporary arts and culture in the region.
In his curator’s statement, Ivan Boyd said the artists “have provided a space to hear or feel what nonhumans are encountering as they attempt to survive inside this bewildering world.”
They donated 20 percent of proceeds from the show to Wildlife Rescue Inc. of New Mexico, a nonprofit that cares for orphaned and injured wild birds and other animals.