Some artists get their inspiration from ethereal muses. Rancho Santa Fe artist Sandy Brue looks for enlightenment from her dog, an enormous brown mastiff named Brutus.
It's only fitting. Brue is in the business of sculpting animals, everything from Boston terriers to Bengal tigers.
Brue started her company, Sandicast, nine years ago in her garage with only one employee and four of her animal creations. Now, as sole designer, president and head of marketing, Brue has more than 100 employees working out of a building in Mira Mesa, 300-plus sculptures in her repertoire and yearly sales in the double-digit millions.
Brue receives a flood of mail every day, mostly requests from pet owners asking her to replicate their beloved dog or cat. She has already created a limited-edition series of wild animals for the San Diego Zoo.
Brue's figurines are made of a cement mixture called cast stone and are texturized and painted by hand. Her pieces include small, medium and life-size dogs and puppies, cats and wild animals. Prices range according to size from $10 to over $100.
Starting with just a few pieces in two North County gift shops, Sandicast has grown to include accounts in Europe, Australia and Canada. On a recent European vacation, Brue found one of her animals in a gift store in a small town near Nice.
"It's absolutely thrilling to go in a foreign country and see that people are just crazy about Sandicast," Brue said. "It's hard for me to go somewhere and not find a Sandicast account."
Up until 10 years ago, the mother of four had never sculpted anything in her life. Brue had been a free-lance commercial artist, designing logos and doing illustrations out of her home, when a client requested some wild animal sculptures.
"I thought, 'Gee, you know, I bet I could do that,' " the 46-year-old artist said. "I just went out and bought some clay and started sculpting."
Brue crafted 14 animals for that first client, including a snail. But it wasn't until a year later, with the encouragement of friends and family, that she entertained the notion of starting her own business.
Brue's first models were the puppies at the Docktor Pet shop in Plaza Camino Real in Carlsbad. Using a rented Polaroid camera, she would snap photos of different parts of their bodies, then go back to her garage and sculpt the whole figure in clay.
The next step was making a mold of the animal, and texturizing and hand-painting each figurine to look as realistic as possible, Brue said. "It takes a long, long time to do all those little individual hairs."
Brue has since graduated to using adult dogs and wild animals as her models. She travels all over Southern California to different dog breeders and often goes behind the scenes at the San Diego Zoo and the Wild Animal Park.
Before beginning any project, Brue retreats to her extensive home library and reads about the history and mood of the animal she wants to sculpt. But nothing compares to getting out and playing with the dogs or feeding the animals at the zoo so they are more relaxed around her, Brue said.
Despite her executive status, Brue can still be found hunkering down on her hands and knees with a Polaroid camera trying to determine which way the hairs on a hippo grow or what the shape is of an elephant's eye.
"There are no standards for wild animals," she said. "No one is going to stand and look at your rhino statue and say, 'Well, you know that horn has to be six inches long,' or 'this eye isn't oblique.' "
"Whereas when I'm doing breeds of dogs, there are AKC (American Kennel Club) standards, there is an ideal for that breed," she said. "I try to make a very good example of that breed, that's why I use different champions."
Pose and expression are also key elements to a Sandicast sculpture, Brue said. She looks for certain characteristics that would be considered typical of a particular breed so that anybody who had that dog would be able to say, "that looks just like my dog."
Brue said she steers clear of making animals look cuter than they are, but always strives to capture their own innate beauty. She would never sculpt an elephant dancing on his hind legs, she said.
"I try to do animals as close to the way they are in real life," Brue said. "I guess you can say the only person I copy is God. I thought he did a wonderful job."
Where to Get Them
Sandy Brue's animal sculptures can be found at the Tinderbox in North County Fair, Pea Soup Andersen's in Carlsbad, Joy's Hallmark in Oceanside, Howell's Hallmark in Solana Beach, Sylvia's Hallmark in Encinitas, Reigning Cats and Dogs in Poway, Just Animals in the Bazaar del Mundo, and the gift shop at the San Diego Zoo.