Forging a Legacy: Cameron Stalheim’s Artistic Journey
By Jarett C. Bies
Cameron Stalheim was waiting for a call as his phone began to flash “low battery.” So, he shut it off, even though he expected an important call. He’d been waiting for weeks, which had grown into months, and so the Sioux Falls, S.D. native figured he would be fine without it for another couple of hours.
Stalheim graduated from the University of South Dakota’s College of Fine Arts in 2010 with a degree in sculpture. When a 2011 national call for sculptors from his alma mater had come out, he answered it.
Sure, he knew he was fresh out of school and sure, he knew he was facing opposition from artists around the globe, many who’d completed dozens of commissioned works.
But Stalheim’s passion drives his life. He knew that while the competition might be strong, he had a unique vision. His sculpture would show the prairie carnivore with its face raised, mouth open in a howl. Stalheim’s vision evoked a coyote filled with confidence. The sculptor and his art reflected one another.
His entry into the coyote sculpture competition was well-received. In fact, among the 36 artists who had submitted work, he finished among the final six. Stalheim had crafted a maquette – the art-world term for a small-scale version – that was on displayed on campus while students voted on the final six entries. Yet he awaited the final verdict, the decision-making continued, and he awaited the call.
That night when he got home, he plugged in his phone.
“It was so unlikely that during those few hours they would have called,” said Stalheim. “So I plugged in my phone and sure enough, I had a message.”
It was the one.
The message, from College of Fine Arts Dean Larry Schou, would not only change Stalheim’s life, but the USD campus would reflect his artistic vision, in bronze, forever.
“I immediately called all my family,” said Stalheim. “It was an amazing, emotional moment, one I will never forget.”
Once he received the call, another voyage began.
“It took a little while, but then it hit me, the seriousness of the selection, what it really meant,” said Stalheim. “Really, it flipped a switch in me, to professional mode. There was so much more to do, so much to consider. It struck me that my work would not only be on campus, but it’d be for a long, long time. That’s very intimidating – it’s really scary and I had my share of moments where I felt the weight of the reality.”
Creative souls carry self-doubt. Stalheim’s felt like tons of bronze at times, but his professional training at USD, the never-fading support of family and friends, and his own passionate devotion to art, all share credit for propelling him onward to the completion and installation of his bronze sculpture, “Legacy.”
Born into Creativity
Stalheim said growing up in a creative home shaped him. His mother, Denise Cameron Nelson ’83, had long shown an affinity for the creative, working as an art teacher for many years, including during her son’s toddlerhood.
“Art and creativity were in the air my whole life,” he said. “We had a creative house and I would help her set things up or play with her materials. She’s really the one who pushed me, who never stopped telling me to follow my dreams.”
At Lincoln High School in Sioux Falls, S.D., Stalheim did just that, painting, sculpting and taking part in plays. His sister, Andrea (Stalheim) Aukerman ’06, said one of his works in high school was a “big deal” and remains on the walls there to this day. “He did a mural and while he might not look at it as his best work, at the time, it was pretty significant,” Aukerman said. “I think it was a glimpse of what was to come, an indicator of his capability.”
An Education Takes Shape
Rather than sculpture, Stalheim originally focused on prosthetic make-up, within theatrical make-up major, upon his arrival at USD. He crafted prosthetics and special effects for stage productions while continuing a double-major in art. But by the time he took Chris Meyer’s sculpture class, something clicked and a change began.
“He’s really who inspired me, and I made the transition, but maintained my scholarship,” said Stalheim. “The Department of Theatre was disappointed when I changed directions, but I did remain and contributed as much as I could. But they wouldn’t stop me; they wanted me to follow my passion.”
Meyer ’00, professor of art and sculpture at USD, said that he saw the skill and ability in Stalheim. “Sculpture is an unlimited creative genre, and Cameron certainly has a passion for three dimensions,” he said.
Stalheim garnered a number of accolades during his years at USD. He received honorable mention for work in the Wilbur Stilwell Annual Juried Exhibition in 2007, was named “Sculpture Bad Ass” in the same show in 2008, and landed the “Muse Prize” for the Stilwell Exhibitions in both 2008-2009. In 2010, Stalheim’s work was named Graduate Student Choice and Dean’s Choice in the Stilwell Exhibition, where he also received another honorable mention.
Out of the Fire, Into USD History
After graduation, Stalheim did what many artists must: He found a day job and kept on creating. Then he heard a rumor that led to Legacy.
“I went to Vermillion to see an art opening and I met with Chris [Meyer]. He told me about a call for sculptors,” Stalheim said. “I saw it as a fun experiment and a way to play with my creativity. I thought why not give it a shot?”
The College of Fine Arts launched its call for artists nationally in art journal advertising and also on websites with an international audience. The application deadline was April 29, 2011, and artists had to submit application portfolios with five to 15 images of previous works, along with five images of the proposed sculpture, and the applications were reviewed in a blind review. Thirty-six artists submitted material, and a committee, the Coyote Statue Committee, culled those down to the top six choices. Finalists for the competition had to supply a maquette of their work. Student and alumni input was used in the final selection between those six finalists.
Once he learned of the call, Stalheim buried himself in coyote anatomy research, printing hundreds of photos, his hands dirty with clay when he wasn’t studying images, video and other recreations of the university’s well-known mascot. He wanted a three-dimensional depiction of a coyote that was filled with pride, howling into the wind.
His vision included one of the coyote’s forepaws lifted, in what the artist explains is a sign of the animal’s contentment and trust.
“I went through seven models developing my own aesthetic,” he said. “I played with the fur, the textures, and by No. 7, I had what I wanted.”
Stalheim submitted his application, and went beyond the requirements. “I felt that being a sculptor, I wanted to show them what I was capable of so I included a model with my proposal,” he said. Time passed slowly, Stalheim kept working at Target, and he never let doubt creep into his thoughts and get comfortable. Friends like Cherrington helped him stay positive. So too did his family. Eventually, he got a letter saying he’d made cut—he was into the mix for the final six—and he felt vindicated.
Students, staff, alumni and others began to vote on the final choices, while Stalheim waited for that important phone call.
Jon Stalheim said he’ll never forget when Dean of Fine Arts Larry Schou called his son. “We were damn near dancing in the streets,” he said. “It was unbelievable. I knew he was going up against a deep and talented pool of professional artists, and the wait seemed like it took forever. It was a beautiful thing to be a part of, that’s for sure.”
The news floored his mother, too. “I just sobbed,” Denise Nelson said. “He called and he could hardly get a sentence out, he was crying, screaming, and we were all just overwhelmed. Then we were all busy calling each other, calling other family, just exploding with the relief and the delight.”
Stalheim had claimed the prize, and now he had to finish the job.
“That intense glee turned into an overwhelming sense of the reality behind the honor – and a sense of intimidation,” he said. “But my passion kicked back in, and I began to live an artist’s life, and with Rick’s [Haugen, owner of BronzeAge Art Cast Foundry in Sioux Falls] help we began the multi-faceted process of completing the sculpture.”
Watch a video of Stalheim's sculpting process
The process Stalheim mentioned is known as the lost-wax casting process. Over the months before its completion, Stalheim, Cherrington, and Rick Haugen worked together to create “Legacy” the official name the artist gave to his sculpture, doing so because of his personal family heritage with the University of South Dakota.
On a summer morning in Sioux Falls, Stalheim, his mother and father, Cherrington, and others gathered as a crucible was heated in a furnace. When the red-hot container full of 2,100-degree molten bronze came forth from the fire, the room filled with intensity. That feeling was not lost on Stalheim, who knew this pour, the first of several, was a true test. Haugen, along with Lisa Myhre, the owners of BronzeAge Art Casting, provided the guidance he needed to reach this step. Using an engine hoist, Haugen and Myhre manipulated the molten metal, filling the molds carefully, the bright orange bronze radiating its fire as the artist looked on.
“It’s nerve-wracking because a mold can break, and then the bronze will pour out and we’re out of luck,” said Haugen, who played a key role assembling the work. “We were glad we didn’t have any of those issues with Cameron’s work. All the pours went perfectly.”
Once poured, the bronze is left to set and the ceramic shell is hammered away from the piece. Those pieces are then sandblasted, fine-tuned and finally welded together. Later, a patina is added.
Stalheim’s sister said the artist’s personality kept things in balance as the process unfolded. “I think he knows he’s talented but he has the proper disposition, the personality, a humility that keeps him honest, keeps him real,” Aukerman said. “You have to have both the humility and the confidence to truly have success in the creative arts.”
Dan Nelson '81, '89, Stalheim’s stepfather, was part of the team behind the sculptor’s success, and said he saw his stepson learn important lessons throughout the process. “He’s got a vital support system and I think we’d all agree that while I care deeply about his feelings, I was the one most likely to say ‘Get to it!’ and I did so because I knew he could succeed,” said Nelson. “He’s a lot wiser now on the professional side of public art and all the steps that go into a giant undertaking like this. This statue will outlive the artist – it’ll outlive us all! It takes a lot of determination and patience, and that’s all Cameron’s doing.”
Seeing the statue on campus, knowing that bronze will outlast any administration, teacher, fad, or other change, sank in with Stalheim as time went by. His connection with the university will forever face onward and leads him to realize how thankful he is for not only the opportunity, but for much more than words can say, namely a confidence to dream without doubt.
“I did this for a lot of reasons, and while I wasn’t at a lot of USD games as a student here, I have pride, I’m not a real rah-rah guy, but I did this sculpture in my own way, and I did it for my dad, mom, my stepdad and stepmom, my whole family,” he said. “It’s a family pride, and that connection we all have to USD. In many ways, what I was able to accomplish I did for the faculty of the fine arts program, because they gave me the skills to display. I thank them for helping to better me. That’s the reason it’s titled ‘Legacy.’ It feels like it was meant to be.”
Stalheim, center, with his family, celebrate the dedication of his sculpture. From left, stepfather, Dan Nelson '81, '89; mother, Denise Cameron Nelson '83; sister, Andrea Aukerman '06; brother-in-law, Travis Aukerman, and Charlie Coyote.