Saddle up to get a look at Kris Schiffman’s scrap-metal sculptures.

 

by Irene Middleman Thomas

 

Visitors to the Terry Bison Ranch, right off I-25 on exit 2, are greeted by strutting peacocks, pettable turkeys, a squadron of immensely friendly cats, squawking hens and roosters, and three grazing camels. More animals populate the corrals and pastures, including 40 cows, one llama, and an unknown number of burros, horses, alpacas and ostriches.

But the most striking animal on the premises might be Tinker, the ranch’s champion bull. Purchased in 1986 from the North Dakota Bison Association, Tinker spent a good quarter-century as the main breeding bull at Terry Bison Ranch. He sired who knows how many show animals during that time; not a bad life. But it ended in 2010, when Tinker died at the age of 35.

Fortunately, you can still see the old boy in a form that’s nearly as majestic, in its own way, as the flesh-and-blood creature. Tinker lives on, not just in the hooves and horns of his offspring, but also as an incredibly complex and imaginative statue created by the ranch’s resident artist, Kris Schiffman.

The life-size replica stands about 8½ feet long, weighs about 2,500 pounds (roughly the same weight as the real-life Tinker), and consists of a staggering mix of more than 1,000 salvaged and antique metal parts from tools, vehicles, farm machines and other equipment. Somehow, the melange works beautifully to portray the beloved bull.

Amazingly, Schiffman had never attempted welding before she went to work on the sculpture.

“I always loved art when I was in school,” says 61-year-old Schiffman, “and I enrolled in any type of art class I could, no matter what it was.” After spending most of her life in Wisconsin, she moved to Cheyenne in 2018 to be close to her daughter. “I got a job at the ranch in the gift shop,” Schiffman says, “but I told them I could do more than just that.”

While she’s telling the story, Schiffman—in the midst of a break from painting murals around the ranch—interrupts herself. “I’m sitting here in my truck with primer all over my hands!” she laughs. “I know all about messy.”

Dan Thiel, who owns Terry Ranch, purchased a metal sculpture of a cowboy and horse shortly before Schiffman joined the staff, and he asked her if she would be interested in creating something similar. It was her first eperience welding, and she was quite nervous about trying it.

“Tinker is the first metal art I’ve ever attempted,” she explains. “I got a crash course for three days from Ron Thiel, the owner’s dad, and I was off and running. Welding had always been something I’d wanted to do. Honestly, I thought I’d start with some simple yard art, but my boss had faith in me. ‘Go big or go home’ was what he said.”

Next step was collecting the metal pieces. Schiffman spent a lot of time at Cheyenne Salvage wading through piles of old tools, parts and whatevers. “I had seen a sculpture in Custer, South Dakota, that I really liked, and that was my motivation,” she says. It took a couple of months to gather everything up for the basic skeleton.

Schiffman did all the welding on site at the ranch, spending some 160 hours on the project. “The face was absolutely the most difficult part,” she says. “I started with the feet and moved forward. I feel that eyes are the window to the soul, and I had to get the expression in them.”

Terry Bison Ranch has a rich history that goes back at least as far as 1881, when Charles Terry purchased the property. Four years later he sold out to F.E. Warren, the first Territorial governor of Wyoming, and the ranch became the “South Headquarters” of the Warren Livestock Company. The operation made Warren the wealthiest man in the state and one of the most powerful in the West. Teddy Roosevelt stayed overnight at the ranch during his Presidency and shortly thereafter.

The Thiel family bought the property in 1991 and opened it to public tours in 1993. Today, it sprawls across 27,500 acres that straddle the Wyoming/Colorado state line. The biggest tourist draw is the bison herd, which numbers between 2,500 and 3,000 head and represents a patchwork of smaller herds belonging to various different owners.

“Honestly, I thought I’d start with some simple yard art, but my boss had faith in me. ‘Go big or go home’ was what he said.”

The stars of the ranch are the 40 show bison. To see them, you take a 2.5-mile ride on Wyoming’s only privately owned tourist railroad, the Terry Town Rail Express. The round trip takes about an hour, and riders are given large pails of pellets to feed the bison. As the train nears the bison (many of which have delightfully adorable calves), the older animals approach the train to take the pellets from dangling hands. The trains go out several times a day, but the best chances for feeding are on the first two trips in the morning, while the bison are still hungry.

While you’re there, you can also visit the ranch’s trading post (replete with an enormous jackalope), restaurant and cafe. You can also take a horseback ride or an ATV tour, spend an afternoon fishing, or stay in the RV park or one of the nine cabins for a few days of R&R.

If you go, be sure to pay your respects to Tinker—and keep your eyes open for Schiffman’s next work of art. She’s hoping to create a horse sculpture in the near future, and says she has been riding horses since age three. “I’m much more familiar with their anatomy than the bison’s,” she says. Her tribute to Tinker has quickly become one of the ranch’s most popular attractions, and T-shirts adorned with a picture of the sculpture have become hot sellers at the gift shop.

For Schiffman, the suddenly acclaimed artist, the recognition is more than rewarding. “It’s a pretty cool thing,” she says with a modest smile.