Six life-sized bronze giraffe sculptures will welcome guests to Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, as part of the new admissions and giraffe habitat updates happening in the coming years – and their creation is a tall order.
“I’ve been using a lot of ladders,” said Antonia Chastain, public art manager at CMZoo. “These are the largest sculptures I’ve ever done, and it’s quite a process. We have probably years ahead of us in this creation. But it’s exciting to see the first one coming together now, and the plan is to unveil them as part of the hundred-year anniversary of the Zoo, in 2026.”
The sculptures started as six-inch clay thumbnail sketches. Once the team was happy with the general design, Chastain sculpted detailed four-foot clay maquettes. To create the most lifelike sculptures, she relied on the expertise of the giraffe team to portray giraffe attitudes and postures correctly.
Chastain spends weeks with the CMZoo giraffe team, leaning on the giraffe herd’s voluntary hoof care behaviors to measure the giraffe. They measure from hoof to knee, around the diameters of their calves, the lengths of their tails, legs, necks and more, to get the proportions right in the maquettes phase. Known for her attention to detail, Chastain also meticulously studied and sculpted eyelid wrinkles, hair, hoof texture, spots and skin folds.
“Then, you need to make sure the four-foot models’ knees and ankles are proportional, because if you enlarge them to five times the size for the final sculptures, you could end up with knees that look like elephant knees above ankles made for giraffe,” said Chastain. “It’s so important that the proportions are correct.”
To create the next size up, the foundry artists scan the four-foot clay models into a 3-D printer that produces foam pieces five times their size – one piece at a time. The foam pieces are reconstructed into a life-sized full giraffe, then Chastain reapplies a layer of clay to the huge replicas. Once every detail is carved back into the clay, the team casts each piece in bronze and welds them together.
The one being sculpted in its final size now is posed bending down to nuzzle her calf, and she is ten feet tall at the curve of her neck. The other mother giraffe sculptures are posed more upright, and will be around 18 feet tall when they’re finished.
As of now, the plan is to create three visual stories of mother giraffe and their calves. The statue of Penny, a giraffe calf who inspired millions during her short life at CMZoo, will move from its current location by the giraffe barn to become part of this larger display. The three mother giraffe and two additional giraffe calf statues are not representations of any individual giraffe. However, especially attentive giraffe fans might notice spot patterns, poses or ossicone shapes inspired by other giraffe from CMZoo.
“The various poses are homages to their nurturing instinct and the special connection between mother and baby,” said Chastain. “One set is stretching towards each other to nuzzle face-to-face and there’s a line between their necks that’s just beautiful form and flow. The third pair is a nod to when kids are little and they’re shy to meet someone new. Their instinct is to lean against mom for security, kind of a ‘hold my hand’ feel.”
As the sculptures continue to take shape and eventually make their way to the Zoo, CMZoo will share updates.