Art in the trees

A Columbia artist’s dream took shape with each slice
of wood chiseled from a 1,200-pound sculpture
Monday, February 23, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:15 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 12, 2008

Nestled between a roundabout and a bar on Old 63 is the future of an artist, wrapped up in the paws of two maple wood tigers.

“Fighting Tigers of Missouri,” a 9-foot sculpture weighing 1,200 pounds, is the result of more than three years of work that Columbia artist Lonnie Tapia hopes will be worth every chisel mark.

“The tigers represent a kind of signature piece that will hopefully create some enthusiasm or some kind of interest in what it is that I do and what I’m trying to accomplish,” he said.

His love for art

Eight years ago, Lonnie came home to Columbia to pursue his dream as an artist.

He left behind a marketing and advertising career in New York that included positions as creative director for Lane Bryant and Limited, Inc. Lonnie moved away in part to confront the feeling of failure lurking in the back of his mind, despite his professional success.

“My offices were always decorated with my art and often I would have the top people in the company flowing through and looking at it,” he said. “I can remember them always saying, ‘Wow this is really good stuff, is this a hobby?’ and I used to smile to myself and think, ‘No, the marketing stuff is a hobby, this other stuff is my lifelong endeavor.’”

His decision to begin this endeavor was one Lonnie said he could never have made without the unfailing support of his family.

“If I had stayed on the East Coast to pursue art, it would’ve been a lot easier,” he said. “But we always had plans of coming back here, setting up shop and raising our kids so they could be around family. That was an important aspect for us.”

Family Support

With Lonnie spending so much time on the tiger sculpture, his personal studio has become a comfortable home base for his wife, Susan, and two sons.

“I just look around and kind of see our lives in certain stages,” Susan said. “In all the places we’ve lived, it was like as soon as we got the artwork on the wall, then it became home.”

With beds upstairs and a kitchen below, the family has no qualms with spending the night, especially when they know they’re helping Lonnie.

“Many times we just hang out with him, and he’s really the most productive when we’re just around,” Susan said. Lonnie’s family history was one reason he knew art would always be in his life. Growing up, the only thing he knew about his father was that he was an artist.

“I didn’t have any pictures of my dad at all as a kid,” Lonnie said. “So I always grew up thinking that if I became an artist and I signed my name in the way that he did his, that maybe someday I would be famous and he would see that and come find us.”

Eleven years ago, Lonnie reunited with his father, and he said they now enjoy a great relationship. But Lonnie draws his creativity from the hard times in his life. “The best stuff I do is inspired by the difficult things in life, not the easy things,” he said. “Creative power, it comes from an instinctive place deep inside. It’s a culmination of all that we’ve experienced, good and bad — you’ve got to mix the bad in there.”

The Tiger Sculpture

Visual recall — the ability to draw or sculpt something exactly as the mind pictures it — is the foundation of Lonnie’s artwork.

“With the tigers, people always say, ‘Where are your drawings?’ and I don’t really believe in doing that,” he said. “If you have it in your head, you just have to fight and search for those images.”

Lonnie’s sculpture began as a maple tree that fell four miles from the MU campus.

For almost a year, a chainsaw was Lonnie’s favorite tool — and worst fear.

“There were times when I was absolutely afraid to work on it because I knew I had to subtract wood and there’s no way to put it back,” he said. “One real mischosen cut with a chainsaw, subtract 4 or 5 inches that I shouldn’t have, and it can ruin the piece.”

Lonnie’s ideal place of display for the sculpture is the new basketball arena. He sees it becoming a campus tradition: something fans rub for luck before a football game and families take pictures beside. “So many sculptors have a problem with people touching their art, for me it’s different,” he said. “I really want wherever it’s going to be displayed for people to be able to walk up, pet it, touch it, that sort of thing.”

Other Endeavors

Lonnie is also writing a children’s book about the adventures of the tigers and two brothers.

The boys in the book are based on and share names with his two sons, Jesse, 14, and Niko, 11.

“It’s fun to utilize them as characters in the book with the tigers and tie all of it up together because I not only get to spend time with my boys but kind of immortalize them as well,” he said.

Jesse said being one of the stars of the book was “pretty cool.”

“He’s a loving father … very creative, very observant,” Jesse said. “He pays attention to detail.”

Jesse and Niko have revered their father’s work since they were little. They have even added their own touches to the tigers.

“A while back, maybe a year ago, I’d go out there and watch him sometimes, and he’d let me carve on the side,” Niko said.

Whatever the future holds, Lonnie said he knew pursuing the life of an artist wouldn’t be easy.

“You never know if you zig or zag here or there where you’ll end up in 15 years down the road,” he said. “It’s always a question mark. But now I’m to a point where I need to launch the art and let people know I exist. I can only try.”

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