Local Artist Uses Metal, Wood, Ice, Sand & More to Create Unique Sculptures
Whimsical wizards, slithering snakes, dramatic dragons and scaly squid statues are part of our Louisville and Kentuckiana landscape. If you’re tenacious and diligently search for them, these entertaining pieces of art can be located in many places. They may be decorating your neighbors’ backyards or possibly adorning public parks or brightening local festivals. These fun figures are courtesy of sculptor Joe Autry and his ingenious imagination, artistic ability and hard work.
Autry is an internationally-recognized sculptor who lives just across the Ohio River in New Albany. His sculpting began 22 years ago when he was only 17 and taking art classes in high school. While some of his classmates preferred working with two-dimensional art pieces, his interest was in creating three-dimensional objects. He spent all of his free time in the art studio before school, during lunch, during study hall, which caught his teacher’s attention. While Autry had plans of entering the military after graduation, his teacher guided him towards a future in sculpting.
“She connected me with a local bronze sculptor, David Kocka. I worked with him in a bronze sculpture foundry for several years.”
Autry says. “Working in that foundry gave me a lot of experience and I began experimenting with other metals. I also worked with another bronze sculptor, David Lind. They both were great, as they had different styles of creating. I eventually went on to work in blacksmithing with another sculptor. All of this opened my world and my ability to use tools. I eventually continued on to be a manager at a foundry in Louisville, at Quality Cast.”
Autry attended Indiana University Southeast but only stayed in school for a couple of years. His yearning to learn more about sculpting and to create pieces had a stronger pull than classroom studies. He also worked a variety of trades while in his 20’s, doing everything from house remodeling to working on riverboats. The waterways carried him, and his imagination, along for a few years, traveling from Pennsylvania to Texas. His boat excursions offered him his first inspiration to start carving wood.
“Driftwood would wash up on the boat,” he says. “I found them to be interesting pieces. I’d let them dry off and would carve them with a little chisel. During my last few trips is when I really became interested in working with wood. It became fascinating. I hadn’t really done any wood carving before that. I’d just been doing bronze.”
Once his life on the riverboat came to an end, the pull to carve wood became even stronger, experimenting with bigger, more powerful tools.
“My wife and I had been living in Jeffersontown and we had trees in the backyard that were dead, and I wanted to carve those trees,” Autry says. “I wanted to use a chainsaw, but I had no experience carving with a chainsaw. The first time I carved in wood it wasn’t much of anything. But it stayed with me, and I did smaller wood carvings. I started doing more research about doing this type of carving and getting the right tools for the right job. I kept doing it for myself and eventually entered art shows. Once I had a collection of pieces, more and more people began to see what I’d been doing and doors began to open up for me.”
Autry began to receive requests from local patrons to have him carve statues from the trees on their property. The first piece was for a friend’s father. The next year, he was asked to do more work for other people, carving older trees. Keeping the old trees intact as they aged was potentially dangerous, due to limbs and branches possibly breaking off, but they didn’t want to cut them down completely. They wanted to keep part of the tree as a tribute to their family’s legacy. Most of his work is carved from ash trees, which unfortunately have been ravaged nationwide by beetles and other insects.
“There’s nothing wrong with bunnies, bears and raccoons, I just prefer not to do them,” he says.
Some of his pieces remain the color of the original wood, but he will often enhance them with different types of stain, to give them color. Once they are complete, they are sealed to protect them from the outdoor elements.
Over the years, Autry has expanded his reach and has sculpted using salt, ice, snow and sand. His ice sculpting began as a whim. A friend wanted to hire an ice carver for a party, so Autry gave it a try. At his next event, he carved an ice sculpture in Anchorage, Kentucky, for an AIDS fundraiser. A woman at the party suggested he participate in an ice carving competition in Perm, Russia, a Louisville sister city. After much planning, he eventually made the trip to Russia, carving on an international level with some of the world’s best ice sculptors.
“I didn’t do so well,” he admits, humbly. “I didn’t have the right tools, I wasn’t dressed properly, and I wasn’t prepared for the language,” he says.
Yet, that didn’t discourage him from becoming more proficient in working with this medium.
“I came home and carved every day,” he adds.
The next year he traveled to Siberia and competed in the frigid minus-45 degree weather. But now he had the right clothes, the right tools, and he’d studied the language for several months. His preparation and diligence paid off. He was presented with the Spirit Award for his work.
After taking on ice, Autry decided to tackle snow sculpting. He and a Russian colleague teamed up and participated together in a snow carving competition in Japan in 2015. They collaborated for months via the Internet, working to develop their design. They finally decided on a piece that incorporated Autry’s vision, which was geometric and abstract forms, and human forms, which his partner wanted to include in the piece. The two met up in Japan, worked on their piece, and they won first place. They were the first American and the first Russian ever to win this competition during its 18-year run.
Autry’s love for sculpting has inspired him to use other materials. He’s traveled to Berezniki, Russia, where he was introduced to sculpting with salt but not the plain, white salt that we know. The salt was in colors — reds, blues, yellows, blacks and other shades. He is also fascinated with sand sculpting and is currently working with Jeffersonville to bring these pieces to the forefront. He loads in 20 tons of sand to create his art during the Steamboat Nights festival. He sets up his outdoor ‘studio’ at the base of the Big Four Bridge and works for a couple of days on his piece. He’d like to do more with sand sculpting, hoping one day to work with high school and college students to teach them how to sculpt with this medium.
Though he’s traveled the world and explored different methods of carving, Autry’s main interest still lies in wood sculpting and also creating with metal. You can find his work most anywhere, locally and abroad.
“I have several projects located throughout the Louisville Metro area,” he says. “They’re in Oldham and Shelby Counties — in Prospect, LaGrange and Anchorage. You can also find them in the PeWee Valley and in the Hal Warheim Park in the Highlands.”
If you were to cross the river, you will find his work in Utica at Bob Hill’s “Hidden Hill Nursery and Sculpture Garden.” He even has a statue in Riga, Latvia. He, along with eight other artists had been chosen out of 60 applicants to create their work in a public park in Riga.
Autry is always searching for new opportunities to bring his art to the public.
“My big vision for the future is to help create a metal sculpture as large as the Statue of Liberty and place it in the Ohio River,” he states. “It would be between Louisville and Southern Indiana, and it would represent the original indigenous people of the area or represent all of the Americas united.”
He says it would be placed in the area where the Louisville Falls Fountain used to be.
“It was a real influence of wonder for me when I passed by it as a child,” Autry says.