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Artist for a lifetime: Jim Sprankle

By Staff | Apr 5, 2017

Jim Sprankle with his sculpture “Ding’s Darlings” that will be auctioned off at SanCap Cares’ annual fundraiser April 9 at The Sanctuary Golf Club. ASHLEY GOODMAN

To say Jim Sprankle has had an illustrious career would be an understatement. Before Sprankle became one of the most well-known wildfowl wood sculptors, he was a professional pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds for 11 years.

“I was signed on my 18th birthday, July 22, 1952, with a $25,000 bonus,” Sprankle said.

After earning a World Series ring, Sprankle retired from baseball in 1963 and was on to his next adventure. He became a public relations executive at a bank in New York then eventually went on to own a small refrigeration business.

Beginning in 1968, Sprankle got his first taste of carving after he began making his own duck decoys in his spare time. He even dabbled in a little bit of taxidermy.

Eventually, Sprankle sold his refrigeration business after undergoing a cancer operation in 1976. The doctor told him he only had about a year to live.

“I started with four employees. I had 21 employees when I sold the business. I just didn’t need the aggravation. If I was going to live a year, I was going to carve the rest of my life,” Sprankle said. “I started carving full-time and as it turns out, it’s the best thing that has ever happened to me.”

At 82, Sprankle is grateful that he is still able to make a career out of it.

“For me, it’s not a job, it’s something I feel so fortunate that I still have hand and eye coordination, and that I can still do something that I truly love. I’d rather be up here (in my studio) than any place else I can think of,” Sprankle said.

Sprankle said he credits the competitive nature of baseball which helped shape him into the sculptor that he is today. According to him, it prepared him for the next step in life.

“No one teaches you how to lose in baseball. I just got to where I had to be one of the best,” he said.

While living in New York State and Maryland, he owned large aviaries that contained many species of ducks, which he says helped him learn the anatomy of waterfowl.

“When you see something everyday, you see what they can do anatomically. When it was time to paint, I would go out and catch it in a net and bring it into my studio, tether it, mix the color and put it to the bird and make notations of the ratios that I needed to get that particular color. Once I was finished, I’d open the window and it would fly right out into the aviary,” Sprankle said. “The end result of how successful you are is how well you can capture the bird. Painting is probably the hardest part for 99 percent of people, the other 1 percent is lying to you.”

Sprankle’s high profile career in wood sculpting has led him to teach all over the world and compete in numerous competitions, earning him a myriad of accolades.

“I competed for 27 years. I have boxes full of blue ribbons,” he said.

A handful of notable people and companies own sculptures done by Sprankle which range in price from $3,000 to $50,000. Charles Schwab, Paul Tudor Jones, Tokyo Broadcasting System and former President George W. Bush are a few of the lucky owners.

In 1994, Sprankle, his wife Patty and his son James made the move to Sanibel to be closer to Patty’s mother. Sprankle describes the move to Sanibel as a “blessing.”

“I’ve never carved anything but waterfowl but when I got here, people buy what they see and relate to. I had this challenge of having to do the local birds,” Sprankle said.

Shortly after moving to the island, Sprankle became heavily involved with the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. He has served five terms as president of the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society and has been a board member for the past 18 years.

Since moving to Sanibel, Sprankle is very well-known for giving back to the community. Since 1994, he has raised about $1,000,000 for local charity organizations. Most recently his tri-colored heron sculpture entitled “Ding’s Darling” will be auctioned off at SanCap Cares’ annual fundraiser for the Golisano Children’s Hospital April 9 at The Sanctuary Golf Club.

The sculpture was donated by Brenda and Dewey Tate, who are former Sanibel residents. Funds from the sculpture will be split between the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society and the Golisano Children’s Hospital.

“I just feel so blessed that I am able to help these little kids,” Sprankle said. “It makes me feel good that I can help the hospital and of course, “Ding” Darling.”