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Michael Speaker Lights a Fire Under His Career by Turning Odd Creatures into Funky Sculpture

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All you armchair adventurers who love the great outdoors but prefer Louis XIV to mounted moose heads can take heart. Michael Speaker, 39, a West Coast sculptor, is quickly becoming the wild kingdom’s answer to Chippendale. His creations include an eight-foot-long rhinoceros fashioned from 20,000 wooden tiles—and it is also sort of a chest of roars, with 13 small built-in drawers. And then there is his seven-foot wooden steer (real horns included) whose torso folds down into a bovine writing desk ample enough to accommodate any Western novelist.

The average art buyer, weaned on watercolor sunsets, may well ask, “Yeah, but is it art?” So far, critics say yes: The New York Times labeled the Portland-born artist’s wood tile sculptures “glorious.” The works may be imaginative, but the dollars they’ve brought have been real. “Rhino caught the eye of Nicholas Franco, nephew of the Spanish dictator, who spotted it from his limo window at a New York museum, ordered his chauffeur to stop and the next day plunked down $40,000 for the piece,” says Speaker. Another fan paid $27,000 for The Bureaucrat, a scowling government type whose body doubles as a chest of drawers.

Speaker, who earned an M.F.A. from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1975, came by his profession the hard way. In 1971, after a head-on collision with a truck on an icy Iowa road, he made a vow that he’d quit his job as a medical equipment salesman. “I remember saying to myself just before the crash, ‘If I survive this, I’m going to be an artist.’ ” With nothing but a minor injury to show for the trauma, he headed for Colorado to study art. Later he found work in Hollywood as a scene designer. After a few lean years, his own work began to catch on and today clutters the Encino, Calif. home he shares with wife Linda, 38, and kids Kirstin, 9, and Stephen, 5. With a big new show in Palm Springs, Calif. later this month, the artist is optimistic about the future. Says he, “I can feel things busting loose. I think my time is here.”