Some kids are suited for learning in a classroom, for others education begins when they leave. For six-year-old Mike Barlow, paging through his father’s extensive collection of art books on African wildlife awakened a muse that would lead to his life’s work, and an unshakable bond with wild animals and their habitats. While growing up in his family cabin in Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains, he began modeling in clay the animals he uncovered in his father’s books.
Then, at age 10, came a seminal opportunity for Barlow when his family took a month-long safari to Kenya in 1973. For young Barlow, it was a chance to walk among the Maasai and visit the land of his dreams that would forever instill a fascination with wild places, new cultures, and fantastic beasts.
That early journey ignited Barlow’s passion for travel, eventually leading him across the globe to many of the wildest places on our planet—the kind of landscapes that fed his fascination for animals and art.
I first encountered Barlow while editing Sports Afield magazine in Los Angeles some 25 years ago, for his photography was a staple of the monthly outdoor adventure publication. It was clear from his work that he had successfully blended his vocation and avocation, for he delivered images with a unique perspective and possessed the authentic eye of someone who had an uncanny connection to his subject matter. It was the kind of prowess that only develops from a keen passion for animals and the places they inhabit.
Whether a Rocky Mountain elk or an African lion, Barlow’s intimacy with and understanding of animals and their habitats helped make him one of the premier outdoor photographers in America, his images commonly adorning many of the largest national outdoor titles.
By 2000, however, Barlow had returned to his childhood love of sculpture and quickly ascended to the pinnacle of American wildlife sculptors, catching the eye of numerous high-profile collectors across the globe, including prominent philanthropist Paul Tudor Jones, NASCAR legend Richard Childress, Home Depot founder Arthur Blank among many other notables.
Moreover, his work has been selected for the prestigious Coeur d’Alene Art Auction, the Russell Auction, and the Jackson Hole Art Auction to name a few. You’ll also find his work in the Montana Governor’s office and in Senate offices in Washington D.C.
What’s on his wish list, however? Five minutes with Stan Kroenke, owner of the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams. Barlow has a stunning concept for two clashing bighorns that he calls Prime Time—done to a scale befitting a football stadium—that he believes would be the perfect adornment to one of the NFL’s premier venues…perhaps with, “Super Bowl LVI Champions” somewhere in the design mix.
“I have admired Mike’s work for many years,” says famed wildlife artist Ken Carlson. “His experiences in the wild give him an ever-evolving eye which conveys a sense of soul in his pieces and brings art and nature together.”
Study Barlow’s bronzes and it is as if he has made a moment in an animal’s life eternal, each work both a memory and a frozen second in time. Witness a trio of lions in a life and death encounter with a buffalo in a sculpture that he calls, Battle Royale, and you can nearly hear the struggle, taste the dust and blood, and feel the adrenaline of the moment. Barlow’s ability to transcend art and forever connect his admirers to some of the planet’s most iconic creatures is his profound gift.
While his pieces are anatomically correct—proportions that accurately portray his wildlife subjects—he is a student of many of the great European masters and, as such, delivers classic works while adding his own signature contemporary flare. It’s that distinguishing look that caught the eye of the producers of Paramount’s hit Yellowstone series. Watch carefully in season five and you’ll see Barlow’s work on set, a perfect addition that brings the outdoors inside and distinguishes a room, sets a mood, and celebrates a passion for the wild…just like his works have done for many premium homes, offices, and galleries across the globe.
Like all great artists, his works tell a story that is both captivating and revealing—often about the relationship between predator and prey, man and beast, and ultimately, hints at our role as stewards. It is impossible to look at his work and not marvel at the wonders of nature and be moved to protect it. His sculptures ultimately pose fundamental questions: Could you live in a world without these amazing creatures, without these landscapes, and what are you doing to secure their future?
Barlow lives with his wife Tracy in the aptly named Paradise Valley of Montana, a dramatic landscape where inspiration isn’t difficult to find. His studio is a blend of art and photographic gallery with a dash of natural history museum. All around are reminders of his family and his passion for travel—his two endless loves. Like his father, there is a collection of wildlife art books, biographies, and plenty of titles dedicated to the animals that are his subjects.
While he may have found inspiration in those books both as a young man and as a mature artist, it is on the plains of Africa or the side of a mountain where he truly gains his understanding of his subjects. It is on the track of a pride of lions haunting buffalo or watching a grizzly stalk an elk where Barlow returns to the wonder he knew as a child—the same place he takes us all through his work that celebrates beasts of legend and all that they mean to our world.