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Artist finds his fish niche
Great Falls carver Tom Dean speaks about his passion for carving at his shop in Great Falls.

GREAT FALLS - Fish hide in Tom Dean's woodpile - warmly colored, lightly oiled brown trout and rainbows fin the deep pools of exotic hardwoods just waiting to be freed.

Dragonflies, frogs, cattails and water weeds are there, too, all waiting for the soft chip, chip, chip and warm buzz of Dean's carving and shaping tools.

Dean, a Great Falls native and avid fly fisherman, only recently began seeing those fish in his woodpile. Before that, he was a salesman, most recently in pharmaceuticals and orthopedics.

But the self-taught carver quit all that - stuck his sample cases in the closet - and now makes his living by freeing those fish under the name of Milo Creek Carvings.

Gaining attention

Even though he took up carving fish in 2005, his work already is catching the attention of gallery owners and art aficionados. He has placed a piece in a private residence in the Yellowstone Club, the exclusive hideaway of millionaires near Yellowstone Park, and his work is scheduled to be featured in the April issue of Cowboys and Indians magazine, a fancy journal of Western art and lifestyle.

Dean has sold pieces to collectors in Tallahassee, Fla., and Haverford, Pa., and has work in a number of galleries, homes and offices around Montana.

"When I started this three or four years ago I had no idea what this would lead to," Dean said. "I always wanted to do something I was passionate about."

Indeed, he is passionate about fly-fishing. He learned at the knee of his grandpa, Milo, on the banks of the Smith River.

But it wasn't until just a few years ago when Dean began carving as a stress reliever that he found he had talent.

His fish have evolved from flat, almost tribally primitive wall plaques to three dimensional in-the-river sculptures that include the elements of life - rocks, water, waving plant life and aquatic insects - and trout.

His tools are band saw, wood chisel, carving knife, Dremel rotary tool and a flexible inflatable sanding tool.

He uses exotic woods: bubinga, koa, lacewood, lignum vitae, padauk, shedua and tiger wood. Some domestic woods also contribute to his creations - black walnut, cherry and juniper from Eastern Montana.

Biggest and best

Dean's love affair with wood has intensified to the point that he seeks out juniper bushes and knows where the biggest and best and most interesting bushes grow. He makes pilgrimages to see them each year and to see how they have changed. He takes their dead branches but leaves the centuries-old living trees.

From his first limited-dimension carving, Dean saw that his fish were evolving - each becoming more realistic than the last. He toyed with cattails and damsel flies and they, too, became more realistic. Water weeds, he realized, bend with the current, so his do too.

At a dinner party one evening, Dean showed his hosts a cattail and a few fish that he had carved. He wasn't looking for praise, he says; he was looking for unfettered criticism. They raved and urged him to pursue his carving.

"You really need to think about this," Mary Wilmarth told Dean as she urged him to consider his carving as part of a career change.

"The detail and the beauty of the work that he was showing us just took our breath away. It was stunning," Wilmarth said. "We could see he was underestimating himself. We could tell he was inspired. He has the ability and the passion, but he needed the extra encouragement to take that next step, as many entrepreneurs do."

Wilmarth, who has been involved with producing the Russell Art Auction for nearly 20 years, said she has been through hundreds of rooms at the auction.

"I guess I can tell when I saw Tom's work that he is on that level," she said.

Wilmarth and her husband, Mark, own Vision West, a marketing and fundraising business.

Spending time with kids

So why would a successful pharmaceutical sales account manager making upward of $80,000 per year step off the corporate ladder and free-fall into the void of a personal dream?

"They are 6 and 9 years old," Dean says of his reasons. "They are my children and my family that I wouldn't see from Monday through Thursday while I was on the road.

"Patti Jo (his wife) and I made a life decision. We decided that family is more important than the almighty dollar," he said.

Shortly after Wilmarth's urgings, Dean was able to show a few pieces at the 2008 C.M. Russell Auction of Western Art.

None of the pieces sold, but soon he began getting phone calls, and the demand for Dean's wood sculpture is increasing.

In June of 2008, Dean says, he cut his lifeline with his sales career and began working entirely on his art.

"I thought, 'I have only been doing this a year or two. I have a mortgage, a family, and children.' I was passionate about it before, but now I am passionate about it in a different way."

Dean has a piece on display in the Big R Fly Fishing Department and has been asked to produce a huge sculpture for the Great Falls store.

"I want this to be my signature piece," Dean said of the 10-foot-by-5-foot piece that will hang at the front of the store.

And, Dean has been nominated by Wilmarth and Great Falls personality Norma Ashby to the Montana Circle of American Masters.

Dean says this story is not about him, it is about the ability that all people have inside of them to do whatever they want, as long as they are passionate about it.

"I cannot fabricate this better - and it seems that 2009 is going to be my turning year," Dean said. "I never drew, I never carved - nothing and then boom! We all have it in us."

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