Steamboat Springs Sandy Graves doesn’t distinguish her art from her life. In her downtown Steamboat apartment, her studio occupies one corner of the space — with her bronze sculpture pieces, drawings, clay and other materials spilling over into the rest of the room — while her son, Wyatt, 5, plays with Legos just a few feet away.
Wyatt likes that the sculptures are shiny before his mother puts a finish on them. Graves likes that her art has now become her livelihood and her full-time job, in addition to a lifelong passion.
The first time she displayed her bronze sculpture work in a formal art gallery was five years ago, when she and 26 and other local artists launched the collaborative Artists’ Gallery of Steamboat. Now, the Nebraska native’s work is represented in 11 galleries across the globe, in public displays like a large, realistic piece on the Routt County Courthouse lawn and in well-known festivals each summer.
“It’s been really surprising, and all I can do is be grateful for the opportunity,” she says.
Local collector Gail Eden — who along with her husband, Don, owns several pieces of locally made, nature-inspired art — says she’s especially proud that Graves has been invited to the Loveland Sculpture in the Park festival for three straight years.
“We were thrilled to see her there,” Eden says.
In the art hallway of their Steamboat Springs home is a Graves sculpture of two horses snuggling. Eden says the piece captures the essence of the moment without losing the form.
“You still see the animals, but they’re unique,” she says. “We really like what she does with the long legs on the horses.”
Graves’ signature style — often featuring horses or other iconic creatures with long, spindly legs and hollowed out bodies exposing vast negative space — originally was a “naïve mistake” for Graves. She first experimented with the abstract style while working on an assignment in college.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” she says. “I don’t even remember if I got a good grade on it.”
Graves graduated from Colorado State University in 1993 before landing a job teaching art at The Lowell Whiteman School for 16 years. Two years ago, she left her job as her art career began to take off.
A few years ago, she returned to that hollow style, finding that it was unusual and expressive, a way to fuse realistic forms with creative flair.
“All of my pieces are about an emotion or an action, something that strikes me as fun, scary or proud,” she says. “I don’t have a plan when I start. I really like when I get into that right brain place where I don’t know what’s going on around me, and the bear is just building itself. That’s when your technique doesn’t get in the way of your vision.”
Her vision is evolving, too. She’s experimenting with armatures, large pieces and a line of increasingly popular bronze horse necklaces.
Although she grew up a horse person, she’s been branching out and experimenting in re-creating all of the critters that surround her in Steamboat like fish, bears and elk. And she’s constantly inspired by the wealth of other local artists and their interpretations of the surrounding Yampa Valley.
“I think beautiful places draw people interested in that kind of beauty,” she says.