GREAT FALLS — For more than a decade, Tom Dean has been carving out his niche in the Western art world.
While between jobs in 2005, with just a jigsaw and a belt sander, he put his love for the great outdoors to work, carving a fish that hangs in his studio to this day. He kept at his craft, obsessed with getting better and selling a fish for $60 at a Christmas art show. “At that time that was a really rewarding feeling,” said Dean.
His carvings got more detailed. The owner of a gallery in Big Sky agreed to show one of his sculptures made up of several fish, cattails, and a dragonfly: “At the time I think it was probably around $4,500 that I put on it which I thought was a lot of money,” he recalled. The piece didn’t sell, until the gallery owner asked him to raise the price significantly. “I just picked a figure out of my head and said, ok, put $28,500 on it,” said Dean. “In two weeks, it sold to a couple from the Yellowstone Club.
It was then he knew he could earn a living making art and Milo Creek Carvings was born. “Milo was my grandfather, Milo is my middle name,” said Dean.
He developed a business plan and quit his job with an orthopedic company.
His lifelong love for waterfowl hunting helped his carving skills evolve. "I got on YouTube and looked at a tutorial on how to carve a duck head and got that done and did another one,” said Dean. “I sold those two pieces to a gentleman out of Wisconsin and since then he’s purchased every bird species that I’ve been able to carve.”
Last year, an elaborate carving centered around a pheasant went for $55,000.
Events like the Russell Auction and the Out West Art Show have increased his visibility as an artist. He’s been commissioned to do works, but enjoys the freedom of working on his own. "I really like to have the creativity to create something without kind of if you will, rules,” said Dean. “Commissions are great but they stress me out.”
He hopes to take his talents on the road after his youngest heads to college in the fall. “So my wife and I will be able to go to more shows, but family is number one,” said Dean.
Twelve years ago Dean had a good-paying job with secure benefits. He took a leap to do what he loved. “It’s invigorating, it’s scary,” said Dean. “But when you really find something that you’re passionate about, and I mean sincerely passionate about, that is a huge motivator and a driver.”
Dean has become a fixture at both the the Out West Art Show and The Russell Auction. His work will be on display at the Out West Art Show in room 142 at the Heritage Inn from March 18-21. He has a duck carving called “Hidden in the Reeds” in Friday’s First Strike Art Show. On Saturday night, his life sized bison skull entitled “Big Medicine” will be up for auction.
Tom Dean profile from March 2015: