Jim Gion, the Portland-based sculptor whose work can be seen everywhere from the Oregon Zoo to Waterfront Park, has passed away. He was 71 years old.
Originally from Klamath Falls, Gion had been sculpting professionally for 30 years, and informally ever since he was a child, after he watched his father mold a small piece of clay pulled off a movie theater seat into a sailboat.
Gion attended Oregon State University, got drafted into the Vietnam War and taught English in Japan before opening his first studio in Portland in the mid-'80s.
He went on to contribute several pieces to the city's landscape. A statue depicting an immigrant's arrival in America stands at a traffic island near his home in Parkrose. Two large columns occupy the entrance to the Japanese American Historical Plaza in Waterfront Park. He was commissioned to create busts for legendary drag queen Darcelle and philanthropist Robert Pamplin Jr., the latter of which is on display at Lewis and Clark College. At the Oregon Zoo, visitors can take selfies with a pride of bronzed lions he created in 2009.
But Gion made most of his living doing portraits of much smaller animals.
In 1999, a patron asked if he could make a sculpture of his dog. At the customer's suggestion, Gion began setting up a booth at dog shows across the country and offering his services to attendees.
Though he stopped traveling the dog show circuit in 2009, sculpting pets remained a big part of his business.
I became aware of Gion last year, when a friend of mine surprised me with a bust of my cat he commissioned from Gion as a birthday gift. I interviewed him at his home just last weekend for a planned profile.
As his own dog, a 6-year-old black lab named Maggie, reclined nearby, Gion reflected on what he enjoyed most about sculpture. Although he'd become known for animals, in his personal time, Gion sculpted many humans as well, including friends, family members and homeless people. And while dogs paid the bills, he admitted that his favorite part of his artistic process are the conversations—something you can't quite get from a pet.
"I love dogs," he said, "but you can't ask the dog, 'What was it like growing up?'"