Sculpting the Wild: An Interview with Colleen Cotey, Spring Arts Walk Cover Artist



By Gale Hemmann

heritage bankColleen Cotey’s animal sculptures are like nothing you’ve ever seen before. And, in talking with her, that’s just the way she wants it. Her life work is to capture animals through art, and after getting her start in oil paintings of animals, she taught herself the art of wire sculpture so she could create something entirely new and different.

The medium of wire sculpture, which she twists into lovely, intricate shapes, allows her to create one-of-a-kind pieces that both suggest an animal’s form and leave the piece open to the viewer’s interpretation, allowing the sense of movement and ever-changing animal energy to infuse the viewing experience.

colleen cotey
Colleen Cotey displays examples of her work, including an elk found with antlers and a wolf sculpture. Her pieces, true to the animal’s spirit yet creative interpretations please and intrigue viewers.

Cotey currently runs Colleen R. Cotey Studios in Olympia, where she creates the large, unique pieces. I had the opportunity to catch up with the busy Cotey at Dino’s Coffee Bar, where she told me more about her work. Warm and charming, with a bright smile and stylish flair, Cotey has a vibrant energy and radiates true passion about her subject.

Cotey grew up in rural western Washington, and attended the Olympia Waldorf School, where she first began to study art. She had drive and dedication from a young age, and at age nine she became the youngest-ever member of the Capital Woodcarvers’ Association. She graduated from The Evergreen State College and then traveled to Dingle, Ireland, where she met her husband. While in Ireland, she served as a framing assistant in an art gallery and worked several jobs. In talking with her, it is clear that the wild beauty of both the Pacific Northwest and Ireland have indelibly imprinted her work. She has kept strong artistic ties in Ireland, and her work is currently on display there (at the Greenlane Gallery in Dingle).

Cotey began her professional work by doing commissioned portraits of animals for their owners. Her ideas for wire sculpture “really began to take off and blossom” in 2010, Cotey says, and are now the focus of her creativity. She was recently commissioned to create six wolves and a raven sculpture for Wolf Haven International in Tenino, an organization whose mission she deeply supports.

She became inducted as a Signature Member of the Society of Animal Artists (SAA) in 2013. SAA is the world’s premiere animal artists’ organization and includes members such as artists for major commercial pet food brands. She notes that local friend and mentor Ross Matteson is also a member of SAA, and that it is quite remarkable that two Olympia residents are included in this international group.

An avid student of nature, Cotey has always spent a lot of time outdoors, studying the wildlife around her. She says trail riding with her horse has been one of the best ways to see animals close-up and is where she finds much of her inspiration. From bears to fawns, she researches and seriously studies the anatomy and characteristics of each animal she sculpts. She feels animals are kindred spirits while respecting their wild nature. Cotey hopes her works will encourage people to go see animals in the wild, and donates a portion of her sales to animal groups.

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This sculpture of a mother horse and her cult, titled ‘Instinct,’ evokes the essence and personality of its subjects.

When you look at Cotey’s work, from leaping orcas to charming baby owls nestled in a log, you see both a wild looseness to the forms and a vivid, individual spirit of each animal. Cotey says in her artist’s statement, “I am not interested in representing a true, photographic resemblance; I am interested in capturing the essence of a given subject…In order for me to feel a piece is successful, it must have expressive eyes. I strive for my work to have eyes that speak to the viewer, portray an emotion, and tell a story.”

Colleen Cotey has won numerous awards for her work. She has pieces displayed throughout the United States (during our talk, she mentioned just having shipped a piece to Hawaii) and around the world.

Cotey has quite a busy schedule for the year. She has been invited to exhibit her work at several shows in Washington State and beyond. Her farthest-flung travel will be to the “America’s Horse in Art” show at the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame and Museum in Amarillo, Texas this fall. When she’s not showing her work, Cotey works on renovating her Olympia home and art studio, and spends time with her husband, horses, dog and cat.

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Cotey was commissioned to create a pack of wolves for Wolf Haven International. Here, a completed wolf takes a ‘drink’ from the lake prior to being installed at Wolf Haven.

When asked about her “dream project,” Cotey enthusiastically replies that she has, in fact, already lived her dream by creating the Wolf Haven sculptures, and so many other cherished pieces that help bring animal awareness to the public. She would love to continue bringing new work to audiences the world, and to create more public-works pieces. She also plans to teach herself welding, so she can create more outdoor sculptures.

Come see Colleen Cotey’s work on display at the Childhood’s End Gallery during Spring Arts Walk. She loves meeting people, and says she’s happy to talk “art and animals” with visitors. You can also see the piece of her work which was selected for the ArtsWalk program cover, as well as a selection of new pieces. To learn more about Cotey’s work, visit her website or “like” her page on Facebook.

Photos courtesy Colleen Cotey

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