Jim Keller spent many boyhood afternoons lounging on the leather sofa in the lobby of Buckhorn Baths, watching the tourists and staring at the owner's collection of taxidermied Arizona wildlife.
It was the early 1950s and Buckhorn Baths, (where Keller's parents worked) was a motel located at the east end of the highway leading into the Valley of the Sun. The elk in front of the mineral baths was the first sight that let weary travelers know they were almost home.
"There was a buffalo on a nearby farm that had gone crazy," Keller said. "The farmer asked the owner of Buckhorn Baths if he would hunt down Ol' Renegade."
Fast forward some 50 years later. Keller decided to sculpt what he thought the buffalo would look like, running across the plains.
Ol' Renegade is running across Keller's hearth (and Buckhorn Baths is still in Mesa.)
"I think I sculpted my first piece in 1979," Keller said.
He was inspired by Western sculptures he saw in a Scottsdale gallery and told his wife, Connie, "I think I can do that."
So that day, he bought wire and Plastina modeling clay and started on his first piece: not one giraffe, but two fighting giraffes.
"I had to start with something really different," he said.
He thinks he saw the animals in National Geographic magazine.
"The giraffes looked like they were dancing. Their legs were splayed out and they had slammed their heads into each other's neck -- the most vulnerable point," Keller said.
When he finished the giraffes, the bronze was accepted into a gallery in Carmel, Calif.
The JCPenney manager sculpted on weekends he and his family weren't spending at their Payson cabin.
Sculpting is not expensive, but the casting process is, and it takes a few months.
Keller is in contact with the foundry artists at key points in the casting.
First, the foundry does a wax casting of the sculpture, and then the pieces must be put together. The seam lines must meet, the ears must go in the right place, facing the right way. After this, a second casting is made, then the metal must be chased -- ground and polished.
Keller is the newest addition to Artists of the Rim Gallery. Art patrons will find his moose, the infamous buffalo, two golden retrievers and an elk statue at the gallery.
The majestic elk comes in a desk size for $2,450 and a larger bronze for $5,750. The proceeds from the elk sales go toward the life-size bronze elk that will one day grace the center of the roundabout.
Keller has not decided on his next project, but his wife wants him to sculpt bears for her for Christmas, or perhaps their white West Highland terrier, Boo.
Connie's hobby is quilting, so the Kellers' downstairs "studio" is cozy when the couple are working on projects under Boo's watchful eye.
"I have the cutest wife, the cutest dog, the cutest car, the cutest grandchildren in Payson," Keller said. "I am so blessed I can't ask for anything else."
Name: J.R. Keller
Medium: Bronze sculptor
Hobby: I tinker with my red 1957 MGA with chrome wire wheels. I am a member of the Rim Country Classic Car Club.
Advice to beginning artists: Don't put off giving "it" a try. If there is something you have always wanted to do, do it.
Advice to beginning sculptors: If it doesn't look or feel right, don't be afraid to crumple the clay and start over.
Driving force: My wife, Connie.
Why Payson? In 1980, we fell in love with the lot the home we built now sits on. I found a contractor who would let me work on the house. I shot every nail, skinned some of the logs and Connie and I both did log-work inside and out. It is our dream home.
Hot project: The second piece I ever sculpted was an Apache on a horse. I took it to the Scottsdale artist that inspired the work and he said it was impressive, except the rider was slightly out of proportion to the horse. So, I shelved the model and never cast it. The horse I am working on now is a re-creation of that piece.
Point of contact: (928) 472-7344