September 22, 2010
By Les Davenport
I could fill a book with stories of extraordinary people that I've met during my many years as a hunter and sportsman. But if this book is ever written, one of the chapters will surely include amazing Iowa antler artist, sculptor and painter Tom Sexton.
To call Tom a "perfectionist" would be an understatement. It would also be an embarrassment to him. Tom is humble and unassuming about his talents, to say the least.
Therefore, I'll go with "purist," which is defined by Webster's as "one who uses rigid adherence to purity."
Though Tom's college degree was in marketing and advertising, his lifelong dream from an early age was to become a sculptor and painter. While in Florida pursuing a college degree, he got a job working for award-winning taxidermist Wayne Cooper. Having always been interested in wildlife, he quickly became infatuated with taxidermy and the study of each animal's distinct anatomy. Tom eventually opened his own taxidermy business.
Tom's eye for color and lifelike recreation of wildlife soon earned him top honors in a Florida state taxidermy competition. He later won first place in several national competitions as well. Tom's skill took him to Loganville, Georgia, in the mid-1980s when he went to work for Wildlife Artist Supply Company (WASCO). He perfected a fish-painting technique with an airbrush and he sculpted fish forms and created painting schedules for several species of fish that revolutionized fish taxidermy and helped thousands of taxidermists everywhere create true works of art.
Tom also contributed to several important taxidermy manuals published by WASCO during the mid-1980s. In 1986, he won Best in World at the World Taxidermy Championships held in Lawrence, Kansas, with an incredibly life-like largemouth bass.
BACK TO HIS ROOTS
Being an Iowa boy at heart, Tom missed his beloved native state. He eventually quit his job in Georgia and moved back to Iowa where he continued to work on his various fish products. Having always been infatuated with whitetail antlers, he also began repairing broken racks for area taxidermists. In 1991, a phone call from world-renowned Iowa whitetail taxidermist Joe Meder changed his life.
The two artists had met at the 1985 World Taxidermy Competition in Lawrence, Kansas.
Tom's largemouth bass had barely edged out Joe's whitetail mount for "Best in World."
Both native Iowans were gifted artists with strong Midwestern values, and they became close friends after the World Taxidermy Competition. Joe had called Tom with an unusual request. He asked Tom to repair a large whitetail rack belonging to one of his clients. The rack had been accidentally run over by a truck and was in 15 shattered pieces! It would be no easy job, but Tom agreed to take on the challenge.
A NEWFOUND ART — THE "ANTLER REPAIR GUY"
Upon completion of the tedious repair job, both Joe and his client were dumbfounded at the level of craftsmanship that had gone into the finished product. The repaired rack was flawless. Neither Joe nor his client could identify a broken joint or pick out a color imperfection on the entire rack.
Word of mouth soon filled Tom's shop with antler repair work from other taxidermists across the nation. Thus a gifted artist and student of nature became known as the "antler repair guy."
"Tom is an inspiration," Joe Meder said. "His patience for color matching and antler reconstruction is unequaled in this industry. I would have to etch Tom's repair job with a knife to tell which antler tine had been fixed and painted. When clients later review their repaired antlers after Tom finishes with a rack, most can't remember what was broken or missing. Tom's attention to detail makes a refurbished rack look better than the original. He is the best of the best!"
THE ULTIMATE ANTLER CHALLENGE
Without question, one of the most challenging projects in Tom's multi-faceted career involved the recent replication of the Brian Andrews buck. On Nov. 14, 2003, then 16-year-old Brian Andrews arrowed an incredible 26-point buck near his home in Independence, Iowa. Brian's buck became an overnight sensation. With a score of 253 1/8 non-typical points, it became a new state-record non-typical by bow. Sadly, Brian's mounted trophy of a lifetime was stolen from his home in June 2004. (See the September 2004 issue for Brian's complete story. Also see the September 2008 issue for an update on Brian's stolen rack. To date, the rack has not been recovered.)
Before it was stolen, Brian's buck had been on display at the 2004 Iowa Deer Classic in Des Moines in March. Larry Huffman, owner of that show and also a well-known antler collector who had formerly owned the Legendary Whitetail Collection, felt so bad about the theft that he commissioned Tom to replicate the massive rack. (Tragically, Larry passed away in January 2007 before he could see the completed project.)
When Tom took on this overwhelming project, all he had for reference material were photos of the rack, the official measurements on the score sheet and the previous year's sheds, which had been found by a neighbor of the Andrews family. Essentially, Tom painstakingly built the 253 1/8-inch 26-point rack one tine at a time from scratch. Upon completion in early 2007, the mounted replica of the Andrews buck was displayed at the 2007 and 2008 Iowa Deer Classics. Brian's father, Randy, noted that it was incredible to witness so many "experts" who claimed that Tom's creation "had to be the original buck's rack."
THE ARTIST AT WORK
About 70 percent of Tom's business consists of repairing broken tines and main beams on trophy whitetails taken by hunters. He often replaces entire left or right sides that have been snapped off in rutting battles. Though some hunters prefer leaving a buck's broken rack as it was when harvested, most favor restoring the rack to its original beauty.
Repairs run from $22 to $60 per inch depending on circumference, texture and the amount of work involved.
The other 30 percent of Tom's work encompasses painting collectible replicas of world-class bucks and reproductions molded by half a dozen well-known artists around the country. Though much of Tom's work comes from Bass Pro Shops and other collectors of giant whitetail racks from world-class deer killed by hunters, of late a number of huge racks have been sent to him for reproduction and painting from breeders who raise whitetails on game farms.
One such set of antlers received by Tom had 46 individual points. The heavy rack had been sawed off the live buck out of necessity after it reached full growth due to the animal's inability to lift its head.
"Incredibly, some of these game-farm bucks are growing 180-inch to 230-inch racks at 1 1/2 years of age," Tom noted. "The numerous whitetail breeding farms around North America are now a multi-million-dollar business.
"Security of my customers' racks is a major priority with me," Tom added. "Iowa is a great state with lots of good people, super hunters and big whitetails. We do, however, have an organized criminal element here in Iowa that seems to thrive on the theft of big whitetail racks. Stolen racks sold to unscrupulous buyers can bring big money. Racks purchased by 'black-hole' collectors then disappear and are never seen again by the owner or the public."
THE BEST OF THE BEST
Both Tom and his wife, Jamie, are avid whitetail hunters. Tom especially likes to bowhunt. But with two young children and a booming business, hunting and leisure time have suffered in recent years. Fortunately, Tom hired local furniture crafter Dan Ray two years ago to assist him with many of his daily tasks.
"It was easy for me to teach Dan about antler repair because he was already a skilled craftsman with an eye for detail," Tom said. "Dan is meticulous and has been a godsend for me and my business."
Because Tom has one of the most unusual jobs in the entire world, people often ask him how he got started painting and repairing antlers.
"I never set out to get into this business on purpose, but I think it came about as almost a perfect-storm situation because of the enormous interest in antlers," Tom said. "I had no idea there was such a huge market for what I would eventually end up doing for a living.
Once I started doing it, though, I discovered that it was a natural byproduct of my love for color and sculpting."
Whenever you deal with large whitetails antlers, the question of ethics is always an important issue. Tom suspects that several times in the past he's been hired to make certain alterations or repairs on record-class antlers that, if later entered in the record book by their owners, might be considered questionable or unethical.
For instance, removing abnormal tines that would subtract from a typical score and adding tines that would enhance either a typical or non-typical score are practices that would make a rack ineligible for entry into the Boone and Crockett records. Yet if someone asks him to do this, he can't very well question that person's intentions.
"I do not judge customers for their motives," Tom says. "However, I will not lie for them either."
Tom has been contacted in the past by Boone and Crockett Club measurers and independent antler collectors who suspected that alterations might have been made to certain high-scoring racks. Although he guards his customer's privacy with a fierce sense of loyalty, he is always forthcoming with these individuals in cases where fraud might be involved. As Joe Meder so aptly stated, "Without etching the antler with a knife, it's impossible to detect Tom's repair work."
AN ITINERATE PERFECTIONIST
Tom takes as much pride in repairing an 80-inch rack as one that might score 280 inches.
"I've been accused of having a glacial pace at times," he confessed, "but I give my all to each and every project and refuse to be rushed. A friend once told me that I'd get a lot more done if I were 10 percent less particular. He said that customers would not recognize the 10 percent difference. I told him that maybe the customer would not recognize the difference, but I would. And cutting corners is something that I absolutely cannot do!
In addition to being known as North America's top expert and artist on any type of antler repair issue, Tom is also a gifted flat artist and sculptor. He has done several bronzes of elk and he has illustrated two books for North American Whitetail editor Duncan Dobie.
One of those books, a children's book about endangered animals titled If You've Ever Seen A Rhinoceros Charge€¦, was very popular with children back in the '90s. Today that book is out of print but Tom's artwork in it has been highly praised.
Although he's known widely as an expert in his field, there is another side to the antler repair guy that may be more important than all of his artistic skills combined. Mention the name Tom Sexton to anyone who knows him even casually, and chances are you'll get a long response from that person about what a great human being the man is. During his long career he's helped literally thousands of taxidermists become better artists in their own right, and he's also helped hundreds of sportsmen and antler collectors with his amazing works of perfection. Truly, Tom Sexton is a one of a kind in the whitetail industry!
Tom can be contacted at (319) 622-3021