Sculpting Casts on Cats to Casting Cat Sculptures: Retired Veterinarian Uses Anatomy Knowledge as ArtistFeb 25, 2021 11:12AM ● By Jackie Fox
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Although some people live straightforward lives, working as a scientist and retaining scientifically minded hobbies in retirement, Dave Biehl, 70, is enjoying a successful third act as a self-taught bronze sculptor in Elkhorn.
Dave’s childhood dream was to be a veterinarian. He achieved that dream, and practiced veterinary medicine for 39 years. While running his Hastings practice, he found it difficult to get all the supplies he needed. So, Dave and his wife, Cindy, pioneered an online veterinary supply store in 1996. It was intended to be a catalog, until Dave attended a presentation about the then-nascent internet. He sat near a computer expert who helped him launch an online business—his second job.
That “right place, right time” karma and pioneering spirit resurfaced in 2003, when Dave decided to take up bronze sculpting. He and Cindy were traveling to Estes Park, Colorado, and their route took them through Loveland, which was having its annual Sculpture in the Park show. Dave was fascinated by a demonstration of clay modeling as the first step in bronze sculpting. When they left, he told Cindy, “I can do that.”
Dave often sculpts animals, aided by his knowledge of animal anatomy. He’s a stickler for correct proportions, which he said people really notice with horses. “No one knows if you get something wrong on a bear, but people spot mistakes on a horse right away.”
Dave’s first sculpture was a grizzly bear and her cub escaping a forest fire. His second was a little boy sneaking behind a mare to rope her foal. He called it “Catching Trouble.” Dave said, “That’s the first sculpture people got excited about.”
Dave’s first commissioned sculpture was in 2009, when the Burwell Rodeo tapped him to create a bareback bronc and rider. His next commission became widely known. Fred A. Bosselman, founder of Bosselman Travel Centers, asked Dave to create a monument-sized sculpture of the Martin brothers, two boys who escaped a Native American attack on horseback near what is now Doniphan, Nebraska, in 1864.
Bosselman was a veterinary client of Dave’s as well as a friend. He knew Dave was a sculptor and had seen several of his smaller pieces. One night after the two played a round of golf, he asked Dave if he knew the Martin brothers story.
“I did and that led us to an agreement written on a napkin to do a life-size bronze,” Dave said. “Fred took a chance on me because I had never done one.”
The seven-and-a half-foot tall result, called “A Narrow Escape,” was installed in Bosselman’s yard. “People gave Fred a hard time because only he got to see it, so he bought four more,” Dave said. They are displayed at the Stuhr Museum in Grand Island, Hastings Museum, Kearney Archway, and Bosselman Energy on Highway 281.
Dave did so much research on the Martin brothers he told Cindy someone should write a book. She replied, “No one knows more about it than you.” In 2013, he published The Martin Brothers through Prairie Muse Books Inc.
He also learned there is no instant gratification in sculpting. Large sculptures may take anywhere from several months to more than a year. “The Martin brothers took about a year and it felt like forever,” Dave said.
Once the sculpture was installed in central Nebraska, his phone started ringing off the hook and other commissions followed. He’s since learned to break large works into smaller deadlines.
Dave’s first love is still bronze. His largest-ever work, called “We Stayed,” is a pioneer family. Suggested by philanthropist Rhonda Seacrest for the Nebraska State Historical Society Foundation, it includes a father at a plow, a mother hanging laundry, and three children. The specific location and timeline are yet to be announced, but the plan is for the sculptures to be installed this spring and dedicated in June or July in western Nebraska.
Seacrest approached the foundation about having a sculpture to commemorate people who settled in Nebraska, and members suggested she meet with Dave. “We were on the same page from the get-go,” Dave said. “We share an interest in history, and she said I don’t care so much about people who traveled through Nebraska territory to get to the West Coast—my people stayed.” Dave responded, “My people stayed too.” Seacrest coined the name “We Stayed” for the sculptures.
After the meeting, Dave approached artist Casey Marsh to sketch his sculpture vision, which he then shared with Seacrest, who loved it, Dave said. Marsh’s sketch serves more as a rendering than a blueprint. “After getting started on a project I don’t really follow drawings or pictures and that’s what happened here,” Dave said. “I made subtle changes to enhance the feeling and emotion.” One involved changing one of the girls from crouching by the laundry basket to standing and handing her mother a clothespin.
Dave likes to nickname anonymous figures and in this case he named the family after his and Cindy’s ancestors. The father, Anton, and the barefoot boy, Joseph, are named after Cindy’s great-grandfathers who homesteaded in Butler County. The mother, Anna, and the sisters, Esther and Elizabeth, are named after Dave’s grandmother and great-grandmother, who settled in Dawson County.
When installed, the sculptures will be placed in a roughly 90-foot semicircle with a sidewalk and a bench for viewing and reflection. Dave also created storylines to go with each piece. For example, when you walk up to the six-foot-three Anton at his plow, you’ll learn the importance of having two good horses and that he’s plowing sod a foot wide and four inches thick that he will later cut into pieces for the family’s sod house. “I like trying to put myself in their place and time,” Dave said. “In the end my goal is to create something that provides an emotional response and helps people understand what these incredibly tough people endured.”
In Omaha, Dave’s work includes a large sculpture of Dr. Lee Simmons and his wife, Marie, with a baby gorilla, which stands near the north entrance of Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. A sculpture of Marine Corps Lance Corporal Miguel Keith, who was awarded the Medal of Honor after he was killed in combat in Vietnam at age 18, resides at his namesake park.
More than 60 of Dave’s 75-plus sculptures were commissioned. One that was not is of Kobus, a Belgian Malinois K-9 officer killed in the line of duty in 2016. “I started sculpting Kobus because it was the right thing to do,” Dave said. An anonymous donor provided funding, and the sculpture is on display at the Omaha Police Department Canine Training Center.
Dave is a resident artist at Old Towne Elkhorn’s Main Street Studios and Art Gallery, which opened in 2016. When the Biehls retired to Elkhorn in 2015, their realtor was a family friend of gallery owner Tyler Curnes. She put Dave in touch with Curnes, who was rehabbing the historic building to make it gallery-ready. “Dave actually designed his own space in the building,” Curnes said. He calls Dave a great fit, not only for his talent but “because he’s personable and more than willing to help someone understand how bronze sculpting works.”
Dave was so taken by working with glass that he purchased a small kiln from Curnes and keeps it in his home studio, a converted garage. “He wanted to experiment with melting glass and has used the kiln a lot,” Cindy said. “He made several clocks this winter, which he calls his COVID clock collection.”
Cindy has taken up glass art, creating pendants and other small pieces she sells as fundraisers for PEO, a philanthropy organization that helps women through scholarships and grants. Like Dave, she has an eye for possibilities. “I saw a friend wearing a glass pendant and I really liked it,” she said. “And we had a lot of small leftover glass pieces from Dave’s art that could be put to good use.”
Dave enjoys his third act because it combines his creative talents with his love of nature and history. “I like working with my hands and bringing something to life. Sculpture lets me tell stories future generations can enjoy.”
This article first appeared in the 60 Plus section of the March/April 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.