A former rodeo cowboy, taxidermist and meter reader is now one of the most successful artists on Bainbridge Island.
Jeff Oens of the FOG Gallery has sold his bronze sculptures around the globe. The artwork that put him on the map was an almost lifesize moose that sells for $68,000 bought by Northwest Trek 20 years ago.
“One of their biologists saw my work, and it took off from there,” he said.
But the route he took to becoming such an accomplished artist was a bit unconventional.
Oens grew up on a farm in Montana with horses and cattle. His dad wanted him to be a professional bull rider, but Oens wasn’t into that. But he did compete in rodeo roping competitions.
“I was a pickup man for awhile,” he said of the cowboy who rides a horse and picks up rodeo competitors after they’re done with their event.
He worked in the family business, which traveled to rodeos during summers to train cowboys. Bronc riding was their specialty.
“My dad was an old cowboy. He loved the Wild West,” Oens said, adding later in life his dad built stagecoaches.
Speaking of wild, Oens said some Native American events really got that way. “Reservation rodeos got a little on the wild side,” he said.
Later, Oens became manager of a Black Angus Ranch, where they did artificial insemination. But he really wasn’t into that either.
So he got a job as a taxidermist. Somewhat surprisingly, he said that was when he got the bug to become an artist. “Many sculptors get their start in taxidermy,” he said.
In that profession of preserving different animals that have been hunted, Oens said he learned about their anatomy. He learned how to make molds of the structures of the animals to stretch the hide over. Those skills transfer over to his artwork.
So while Oens didn’t really like hunting, he did appreciate his time as a taxidermist. “I hunted to keep my boss happy,” he said, adding the last thing he ever shot was a buffalo.
Moving more West
Oens went through a divorce and ended up moving with his kids to North Bend, where he became a natural gas meter reader. That didn’t last long because the school system wanted to bus his kids to Seattle, which Oens wasn’t in favor of. “I’m not a city boy,” he said.
So they moved again, this time to Bainbridge Island, 33 years ago. He continued to be a meter reader for seven more years before opening a frame shop. A few years later is when he finally became a full-time artist.
Oens took some art classes in high school, but never took it seriously. After high school he taught himself to do some pen and ink drawings.
He was inspired to become a sculptor during his years in taxidermy, but because he had to pay the bills and had kids he took other work.
Once they were grown, and he got rid of his frame business, he made a bronze sculpture that won a competition at Olympic College, and he was hooked.
Making a bronze sculpture takes a long time as there are many steps. Oens said 90 percent of his work starts with a customer coming to him with an idea. He draws a thumbnail sketch, and then makes a small version of it.
For the final product, he makes a metal mold of the frame of it. He uses rebar and bends and welds it together. He then glues Styrofoam around the metal. He shapes the foam with knives or a saws-all.
He then shapes clay over the foam. He uses wax to take out all of the imperfections. Up to a quarter inch of sand is then placed over the wax. The artwork is then fired at 1700 degress. When it cools the shell is broken off and a rough bronze is the result. It’s then sandblasted and polished.
Oens said the NW Trek moose took him nine months to do, but if he had it to do again he would take a year.
“You can’t rush artists,” he said, adding smaller sculptures he can do in a month. “You have to be in the mood. But once I get it in my head I stay with it until it’s done; that’s my drive.”
All of his sculptures are limited editions of five, unless someone “wants a one-of-a-kind and buys the rights, but then the price really goes up.” No one has done that yet, he said.
For awhile, Oens owned a foundry in Tacoma, but he got tired of working on other people’s artwork. “I farm it out now,” he said of casting the metal. “I want to work on my own; deal with my own art.”
Oens is well-known locally for his piece on Eli Creekmore, who was killed by his father in 1986. That artwork is located in Poulsbo at Marrow Manor, which is transitional housing for domestic violence victims. Eli’s tragedy led to changes in laws to protect children.
But the work Oens is most proud of is the NW Trek moose.
“It’s my most popular piece,” he said. “I’ve gotten a lot of publicity with it. It’s taken me further than anything else.”
Some of his larger works have been sold to places in Hawaii and Ontario, Canada, along with Colorado and Virginia. His Five Wolves pack was sold to a private residence in a gated community near Eatonville. Most of the time he attends the installations because the buyers want him there.
“I’ve been so lucky, the people I’ve met,” he said. “It’s taken a lot of work over a lot of years.”