A nearly 40-foot breaching gray whale with its calf greets visitors to the Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. A larger-than-life tiger stands proudly on the University of Missouri campus. Three children laugh in frozen playful motion on a seesaw in front of City Hall in Steamboat Springs. What do these sculptures have in common?
They were all cast in bronze at the Lands End Sculpture Center on the outskirts of Paonia, a Western Slope town of just over 1,400 residents 70 miles southeast of Grand Junction. Paonia shares the North Fork Valley Colorado Creative District designation with the neighboring towns of Hotchkiss and Crawford, and the Lands End Sculpture Center reflects the creative surprises the valley offers.
When the whale made the journey from the Lands End Sculpture Center to San Diego in 1995, it was the second-largest sculpture ever cast in the U.S., and the only life-sized bronze whale in the world at the time. "It had to have a police escort to get through Las Vegas," says Nancy Zimmerman, who owns the foundry with her husband, Marty. The sculptor, Randy Puckett, "couldn't find a foundry in California to cast it," she says, "so he found us."
More than 200 artists from across the nation have discovered Lands End Sculpture Center, whose staff of nine casts around $500,000 worth of bronze statues per year. "We have a top-notch staff because they've done it so long and are proud of what they do," says Zimmerman, noting that Lands End employees average 20 years of experience.
Marty's parents, Bob and Mary Zimmerman, started the first foundry in Loveland in the '60s where Bob, a metallurgy engineer, had a shop where he made parts for tech companies. The demand for casting quickly grew, and they decided to devote all of their time to casting sculptures. They sold the foundry in the '80s and moved to the mountains; that same building in Loveland now houses Art Castings of Colorado foundry, renowned, among other things, for producing statues of Buzz and Woody from "Toy Story" that Pixar awards employees to mark their 10- and 20-year anniversaries with the company. Loveland has gained a reputation as a sculpture center with its foundries and "Sculpture in the Park," a juried exhibition with artists from around the world that has been held each August for 33 years.
Fast forward to 1990, when the Zimmermans discovered an abandoned mining equipment repair shop in Paonia that was for sale by...