Big Sky Spotlight: Meet Clark Schreibeis
Montana wildlife carver and sculptor Clark Schreibeis won Best in World honors in the decorative life-size division at the World Fish Carving Championships in 2013. The entry was also judged Best of Show. It was Schreibeis’s fifth best in show since 1995. He also won the Master of Master’s Division in the World Taxidermy Championships held simultaneously in Springfield, Ill. He continues his quest for artistic perfection in a rural setting west of Billings.
By JIM GRANSBERY, Photo by KELVIN PINNEY
Numerous artists have sought wilderness for solitude that spawns creativity.
For Clark Schreibeis, a 1980, 600-mile canoe trip – including a 15-mile portage over Ivashak Pass in Alaska’s Brooks Range – crystallized the desires of his life. At 25, encountering a determinate crossroad, he chose a deliberate path.
That rarified atmosphere of sun, sky, mountains, waters and wildlife above the Arctic Circle guided him: “I was going to quit drinking, marry Rika and take up taxidermy.”
He successfully achieved all three.
Today, he is the world’s finest fish carver and taxidermist. His peers have made it so.
Schreibeis, 58, was born and lived in Sheridan, Wyo., until he was 12 when his family moved to Billings in 1967. His father ran a dairy. His life as a sculptor began at age 8 when he carved a whale out of a bar of Ivory soap.
“I would whittle on wood,” he said. “I remember being struck by the beauty of the wood when I carved into an old piece of juniper.”
His artistic talent percolated to the surface now and again during a number of years. Although he liked to draw, he took no art classes in high school. He did take courses in technical, mechanical and architectural drawing. After graduating from West High School, he worked construction and on the railroad.
“I ran with a rowdy crowd,” he said. “I never knew I had (artistic) talent.”
After his four-month sojourn in Alaska, “Rika said ‘come home,’ ” Schreibeis said. “I took a six-week crash course in taxidermy in Wisconsin. That was all. I hung out my shingle as a western taxidermist. I did fish and birds.”
During a world taxidermy competition in Kansas in 1985, Schreibeis was drawn to carving. In a two-hour seminar, the instructor carved a fish out of wood.
“I was totally taken,” Schreibeis said. “It was more artistic. I was done with taxidermy.”
In 1995, he won his first Best of Show at the World Fish Carving Championships, which he has taken each time he’s entered the biennial competition.
His double world win last year came as a result of commissions by admirers of his work.
Billings angler Joel Long Jr. asked Schreibeis to capture in wood his “dream fish,” a 24-inch spawning male brown trout. For his taxidermy entry, Schreibeis chose his rendition of a wolf eel caught by friend and client Jim Routson, of Missoula, while fishing for halibut off the coast of Sitka, Alaska.
The wolf eel – from the dark deep – resembles a ferocious demon. The 5-foot, 5-inch creature was for Schreibeis the ultimate challenge to recreate. Being a judge, he was unable to compete in the fish category, but he could enter the Master of Masters division, which was open to all master level judges and competitors of all species.
His expertise established, Schreibeis spends his time sculpting in wood and bronze, working on a few select taxidermy projects, judging, teaching carving classes and exploring those wild places he loves.
What is the goal of your work?
To capture the essence of the species. To produce a decorative piece, such as the brown trout, as close to real, and accurately. With the Rocky Mountain (red) juniper, to produce a sculpture such as a great blue heron that displays the beauty of the wood.
What are the best choices for wood?
For carving fish, the best is “tupelo” (swamp tree) found in the southeastern United States. The first 4- to 5 -feet from the root ball is best. The grain is harder upward from that. At several sites in eastern Montana I look for juniper. Southeast of Glendive there is some big stuff.
Where lies your creativity?
I’ve had a piece of juniper here, maybe for 10 years. I have tried to visualize what it might become. Maybe a couple of owls? It (creativity) is to release the sculpture. The work becomes more stylized, interpretive as you go. Although it is not as detailed or accurate as the brown trout, my juniper carving “shouts” great blue heron.
Where in Montana do you go to relax?
On the river.
What three words describe Montana?
Beauty. Wildlife. Family.
Jim Gransbery is a retired agricultural/political reporter of The Billings Gazette. He writes from Billings.