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By Michael G. Sabbeth
Stephen (Steve) LeBlanc is one of the most successful and sought after sculptors in the United States. He is also the celebrity host for the Browning Expeditions television program produced by Orion Multimedia. Over the past few months we talked about topics for articles I was writing about him.
Since we are both avid clay target shooters and wing shooters, I was curious to learn if his approach to sculpting harmonized with his approach to clays shooting and hunting and, if so, were there lessons that could help all of us advance in our chosen sports. I also wanted to hear, with a hint of envy, I confess, about his latest world travels for the Browning program.
Many facets of sculpting are applicable to clay target shooting, Steve explained. “I look at a clay target the way I study a subject I am preparing to sculpt. I study every detail of the target’s flight. I analyze where the leading edge is going and how shot placement relates to my balance and swing. I continuously re-evaluate where I shot and constantly self-correct.”
Steve talked about repetition and hard work. “I’ve read books by shooting coaches. They write about instinct and the subconscious and trusting yourself. I don’t see things that way. Success is practice and more practice. I’ve fired tens of thousands of shots. What some call instinct and trust are the result of practice, self discipline and adjustment. Trusting yourself is not justified unless you’ve put in thousands of quality shots.”
When he sculpts, Steve explained, the feathers of the eagle or the thick hair of a polar bear are not authentic because of his great natural talent. They are authentic because he sculpted them a hundred times. He’s studied their anatomy; he’s hunted the animals or done their taxidermy. “There’s a lot of clay on the floor of my studio,” he said. “The bronze animal you see displayed is the one out of ten that didn’t get thrown away.”
When we’ve shot together—clays or hunting—and when I’ve visited his studio, Steve frequently uses the word ‘focus’ when speaking about his approach to art or shooting or, indeed, to life. “Focus is a matter of training. It’s will power, sure, but it’s mostly training.” And he is optimistic. He expects to be successful when he shoots.
Jason Elam, All Pro NFL kicker who played most of his career for the Denver Broncos, is one of Steve’s closest friends and was his next door neighbor until recently. During an interview, Jason told me, “You don’t practice until you get it right. You practice until you can’t get it wrong.” That philosophy has been expressed to me by every member of the various U S Olympic and national shotgun shooting teams I’ve interviewed.
At higher levels of clay target competition, shooting has more meaningful overlaps with hunting, particularly with dangerous game hunting. Steve works on his breathing and has mastered techniques to lower his heart rate. He visualizes breaking targets as intensely as he visualizes making a perfect shot in life and death situations. “I take deeper breaths to get more oxygen,” he explained.
These skills help him see more clearly and react more quickly, whether it’s shooting a chandelle or making a critical shot at a charging lion. Steve has the experience to back up his words. Indeed, that he could speak to me at all was proof of his ability to act in accord with these words and principles.
“Either he dies or I die,” Steve said without expression at his home a few months ago. He was recounting his recent elephant hunt in Zimbabwe as guest host for the Versus Dangerous Game program produced by Orion Multimedia. Steve and his guide and camera crew were cautiously walking through bramble and tall grass when a wounded Cape buffalo exploded from the brush thirty yards ahead and charged.
“He was like a freight train, except faster,” Steve said with animation. “In that expanded second time slows down. I smelled the musk. I noticed things; the eyes, the hair and saliva around its mouth; ticks, a deep scar on its nose, gashes in the horns.” Steve paused as if he were learning something about himself. “Already I was sculpting the animal.”
Steve shouldered his .416 Rigby, knowing only one of them would walk or limp away. No other outcome was possible. The buffalo was so close it had turned its head to the right to align its left horn with Steve’s body to impale him. That was its fatal error, the kind of fateful moment that leads to enthralling campfire tales lubricated with good single malts rather than to funerals. The movement exposed the left side of the buffalo’s head. Steve fired at its brain. The behemoth died two yards from his feet.
“You were almost killed!” I exclaimed. “Yeah, I guess,” Steve replied in stunning understatement.
We were in the kitchen of Steve’s beautiful home southeast of Denver. The window behind him opened on his forested back yard. His art—life-sized sculptures of bear, bison, fox, elk and deer—inhabited the grounds like immobile silent sentinels. We went downstairs to his trophy rooms. Steve walks like a bear trying to be an NFL linebacker. He has a presence and radiates energy. I felt I’d get a shock if I touched him.
Mounted on walls were sailfish and marlin seemingly the size of SUVs and salmon and tarpon that any game fisherman would envy. An array of trophies in shoulder and full-body mounts filled the main room: Steve did all the taxidermy work. You can view his trophy rooms in Great Hunters: Their Trophy Rooms and Collections, Volume 4, published by Safari Press.
Steve has been fascinated by animals since childhood. As a little fellow, six or seven years old, on each trip to the Saint Louis Zoo, his parents bought him a plastic replica of an animal. He read about animals in book stores and libraries with an intensity rarely seen in children.
Perhaps fate’s first caress with Steve was at age ten, when a gorilla at the zoo died. It was mounted and displayed at a location that happened to be near the office of Marlin Perkins, host of the iconic Mutual of Omaha’s ‘Wild Kingdom.’ Marlin had a Zeus-like stature in Steve’s young mind. Steve was studying the gorilla one day when the door to Marlin’s office opened. Steve’s hero stood in the hallway, his face possessing a look of accessibility.
“He took the time to chat with me,” Steve recalls. “He paid attention to me.” The conversation ended with a bold foreshadowing. “When I grow up I want to be like you,” Steve told Marlin. “What are the odds that boy’s dream would come true?” Steve asked me rhetorically. He answered his question. “Not high. Something else was at work that moment.”
Steve’s first job was as a mortgage banker. Compelled by the allure of wild animals, he took up taxidermy as a hobby. He was living in Littleton, Colorado in 1976 when he entered the national taxidermy championship, held that year in Denver. He submitted a running antelope using a form he and Bill Pipes sculpted. They were selected co-champions of the competition.
People of ‘means’ began inviting Steve on hunts. A demand developed for his excellent taxidermy work. When no taxidermy forms existed for crafting a final mount, friends brought him the bones of animals they had successfully hunted—an Argali sheep from Mongolia, a forest bongo from Africa—and he created the forms.
The question whether Steve did any sculpting arose so repeatedly that he began studying the art. People liked his work but it is one thing to sculpt and quite another to make a living at it and the latter should not be confused with the former. Contacts from the mortgage business became his first clients, giving Steve the confidence to quit his banking job. “It was a risk, and frankly, I was scared.” But, as the saying goes, he’s never looked back.
One afternoon Steve and I spent almost an hour in his studio and gallery across the driveway at his home. “Every piece has a story,” Steve said, “and I try to convey the story to the observer.” He pointed to an elegant lion. “That’s inspired by a lion that almost mauled me.” He picked up a small sculpture of a pronghorn antelope. “Did you know,” he asked, “that the pronghorn doesn’t have a gall bladder?” I shook my head. “It’s never come up at cocktail parties,” I replied.
Through his art Steve strives to show his respect for the animals. Poignantly, he said, “You can’t respect the animals fully until you see how they live and how they die. I’ve been there. It’s real.”
Every work is infused with his soul. What Steve sees in a fraction of a second burns an image in his mind. His art freezes that instant in bronze. The genius of the successful sculptor is transferring the energy of the subject into the art so that it becomes a conduit between the subject and the observer. “I get excited,” he exclaimed, “because I want to share that moment and how that moment came about.”
“Time stops, the hands of the soulless inexorable clock grasp the dial’s surface and stop; to project beyond the moment, to expand what is ‘now,’ into something eternal, not losing time but enriching it.”
Ortega y Gasset, Meditations on Hunting
A DREAM COME TRUE
Orion and Browning Expeditions
“It is a dream come true!” Steve said in a tone infused with humility. Sure, it’s a cliché, but as applied to Steve, it’s as real and solid as the plains and mountains he traverses. “I remember what I said to Perkins when I was ten. He inspired me. Forty five years later, I’m the host of my own outdoor show. Perkins helped me fulfill my dream. I am humbled.”
Steve was destined to meet Chris Dorsey, co-founder, along with Larry Slettin, of Orion Multimedia. Orion was on its skyward trajectory to becoming one of the nation’s top outdoor video production companies. Meeting Steve, Dorsey realized that something vibrant and unique would result from a professional association.
Steve began guest hosting for programs sponsored by Ruger, Realtree and Beretta, among other grand companies. Orion was crafting a hunting program for Browning and when Steve was suggested as the host, Browning quickly accepted. Bill Norton, a Browning national sales manager, told me, “LeBlanc’s intimate knowledge of sculpture and taxidermy brings a different perspective about animals that is not usually done.” …
But Steve’s allure went beyond his hunting prowess and artistic skills. Companies appreciated his character, temperament and integrity even more. “LeBlanc’s demeanor, lifestyle and perfection of detail all speak incredibly well to Browning’s iconic brand,” said John DePalma, vice president of Orion Multimedia. “The fact that he is a renowned wildlife artist and has education in animal biology plays well to the Browning Expeditions series and serves as a form of education to the Browning viewer and end-consumer. For all parties involved, Stephen’s selection was obvious.”
Chris Dorsey added, “Steve brings to the table a tough, articulate person capable of speaking directly and confidently to the viewer.” In response to these accolades, Steve modestly told me, “I hope my travel and art can give Orion and Browning added value.”
THE MAN BEHIND THE ART AND THE GUN
Steve doesn’t think in ordinary linear patterns but in multiple dimensions so I must view his words in 360 degrees, as I view his art. Bits of information are interesting in themselves, but they are like loose pearls, and only over time can I string them together into necklaces of coherent statements about his beliefs and philosophy.
Steve doesn’t just talk. He walks the walk, as the cliché goes. He supports an orphanage in Uganda, at some personal risk. He narrowly avoided attack by terrorists during a recent visit. He is a man of faith, but he understands that faith without action is mere self indulgence and narcissism. Borrowing a term from the poker card game, Steve is ‘all in.’
Amidst all his temporal achievement Steve humbly attributes his success to a higher force, to God on a spiritual level, and, in the physical world, to the whimsicality of fate. Daily he gives thanks to the accident of being born in the United States, a country where he can exercise his faith, be rewarded for his merit and skill and be able to pursue his dreams and gifts. In other parts of the world, he admits, other people, perhaps with greater talent, cannot bring their skills and gifts to fruition.
”Blessings create obligations,” Steve said. “Having a gift means having a responsibility. God has given me this show for a specific reason.” Through his art and his programs Steve believes he can communicate a message from a higher source.
Beyond Steve’s success in life—his art, his loving wife and children, his meteoric rise as a television personality—he has achieved rare success in the art of life. He has created beauty in an often ugly and deceitful world. The Greek concept of arete comes to mind when I ponder an overarching assessment of him: excellence for a virtuous purpose, moral, physical and cerebral, a spiritual force enabling beauty to transcend all.
With Steve, what you see is what you get; no pretensions, no phoniness, nothing obsequious. He knows who he is and he is comfortable being there. He continues to travel, unceasingly seeking new subjects so his art will be creative, fresh and original. He donates to his church and to his community and to numerous wildlife and hunting organizations. Browning is honored and fortunate to have him as its guest host.
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