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Longtime Pixar artist brings personality to fake taxidermied animals

Arik Ehle

Where: Bump Cellars in October

When: Throughout October

Receptions: 5 to 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 3

and 5 to 7 p.m. on Saturday, Oct.5.

Pop into Bump Cellars tasting room and art gallery and make eye contact with Springbok Rock, OG Impala and Vicious Zebra, the faux taxidermy sculptures created by Arik Ehle.

Ehle, an animation artist at Pixar where’s he’s worked for almost 20 years, creates these lifelike creatures to fuel his creative spirit. Each animal he brings to life, using resin, fake fur and glass eyes, has a personality and a story to tell.

Springbok Rock, who wears a pair of earphones, epitomizes Ehle’s belief that listening to music instantly takes you to another place and time. That it can fill you emotion, evoke a memory or inspire visions of the future.

He made Geoffrey the Giraffe because he felt sorry for the company mascot when Toys R Us officially retired him in 2018.

“We are all so passionate about our careers and he was being put aside,” said Ehle, 42. So he created a hipster giraffe with small round glasses and a long scarf – a young, happening giraffe with a bright career ahead.

“My goal is to create something that looks real but has a personality,” he said about the gazelles, wolves and steenboks to whom he’s given names and identities while working in his garage workshop on nights and weekends. Most of his sculptures are authentically life-sized, but he downsized the giraffe to make him indoors friendly.

“Making eye contact is the most important thing,” Ehle said, and he moves the eyes forward so a human can look at the large faces eye-to-eye, a trick he learned as an animator, where the characters always look right at you. “They are hyper realistic,” he said.

The Ehle family moved to Sonoma from the East Bay two years ago and they don’t miss the side of the bay where Arik and his wife Lisa were born and raised and lived their entire lives before moving to the Valley of the Moon. “It’s such a different pace, we love it here,” Lisa said. Their children, Dre, 10, and Zia, 7, attend Woodland Star Charter School.

There are nine Ehle sculptures hanging in their home, a wall full of them greeting you as you enter the front door. “It’s like a hunting lodge but we don’t hunt,“ Ehle teases. They will all be displayed, and for sale, at the Bump gallery show and, if they all sell, as he hopes they do, it will almost be as if the sculptures moved out.

“That’s the thing. You get so attached to them, but I want them to go on to a new home,” Ehle said. “They are expensive to make and I have a lot more ideas.” He has characters in mind for a lion and a rhino. Lisa had a similar reaction to potentially having more wall space. “I will miss them, but Arik will make more.”

He markets his work through his own company, Wild Westside, which he started 10 years ago. He explained the name comes from his work having “a wild west feel to fit a west coast lifestyle” with “an edgy urban twist.”

Ehle leaned into art ever since he was little boy. “I always doodled. That’s how I got my thoughts out,” he said. “I was a quiet, shy kid who sat back and observed.” He loved the movies, and decided he wanted to be a filmmaker when he was 12. He bought an 8-millimeter-film camera at a flea market and later advanced to a huge, old-fashioned used camcorder. “I would film my action figures and stuffed animals,” he said. “In the ‘80s a lot of people were getting rid of equipment from the ‘60s and ‘70s.”

As a teenager he and his buddies would spend the whole summer making movies, filming and acting in their own productions. “You see us age,” he said of the old stories he still has on film and VHS. He went on to UC Santa Barbara where he earned a film degree, and right after graduation took a production assistant (PA) job on “Monsters, Inc.” at Pixar.

He didn’t think his demo reel of personal work was strong enough to get an animation position at his “dream company” straight out of school, and the PA spot “gave me a foot in the door.” While working full time he was also “working on my reel 10 hours a day when I got home,” perfecting his animation skills. “I would talk to the animators and ask them what they looked for, and I learned it was all about subtlety and nuance,” he said. He started watching people more closely, studying facial expressions and the way a person moves. “Like maybe a person has a twitch, or a strange way of standing, or they would talk out of the side of their mouth, and I would make a quick sketch,” he said. He was always studying, learning, and improving his reel.

Then it happened. An opportunity came up for an animator gig on “The Incredibles,” and he was ready. “Luck is all about when opportunity meets preparation,” he said. The opportunity to work with Brad Bird on that film, he said, “was better than any graduate school. He is an absolute genius.”

Ehle’s career at Pixar has continued to thrive and his sideshow making faux taxidermy keeps the juice that drives his imagination flowing. Love, though, is all family for Ehle. Art is a distant second.

Ehle’s loved Lisa since long before Pixar, and his children’s names are tattooed on his forearms. All the many faux creatures he’s made were male until recently when he sculpted Dee Dee the Dik-Dik, a tiny female antelope with a tuft of purple hair he made just so Zia would have girl taxidermy, hanging in a special place in the kitchen.

The four Ehles are all about family, and they know that’s what’s real, not the creatures on the wall. But Lisa said she’d be sorry to see the huge VooDoo Kudu move on. “I think he protects our home,” she said.

Sometimes life is hard and maybe a big piece of faux animal art on the wall ignites smiles. Visit Ehle’s Bump gallery show to give it a try.

Arik Ehle

Where: Bump Cellars in October

When: Throughout October

Receptions: 5 to 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 3

and 5 to 7 p.m. on Saturday, Oct.5.

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