SHERIDAN — Tom Warnke operated a construction business for about 30 years. Upon retirement, he shifted his focus to other pursuits, namely creating dioramas and wooden figurines.
For about the past 25 years, Warnke has worked as a successful artist. His dioramas — mostly depicting Native American cliff dwellings and historical battles — and figurines have won numerous prizes and are displayed in several venues around Sheridan County.
One of Warnke’s latest dioramas portrays the Fetterman Fight, also known as the Battle of the Hundred-in-the-Hand. It occurred Dec. 21, 1866, between U.S. Army soldiers and Arapaho, Cheyenne and Oglala tribes near Fort Phil Kearney. Since October 2017, the Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library has showcased the diorama, which renders the fight in which all of the U.S. soldiers were killed.
Warnke said the Fetterman Fight is the diorama of which he is most proud. In total, it took about a year and 1,100 hours of work to design the figures and landscape. There were also about $25,000 in donations for the diorama from various community members.
Warnke has received help from many people with his dioramas over the years.
“It wasn’t just me,” Warnke said. “You’d be surprised the amount of work those things take.”
For the Fetterman Fight diorama, artist Connie Robinson designed the background mural and local resident Scott Nickerson helped with research and historical accuracy.
Nickerson, a retired orthopedic surgeon, has admired Warnke’s abilities for many years, beginning in 1980 when Warnke helped design and build Nickerson’s house in Big Horn. Nickerson has one of Warnke’s cliff dwelling dioramas at the home.
Nickerson said Warnke possesses excellent craftsmanship and work ethic.
“He has the kind of dedication that most folks can’t come up with and the skill and talent to do it,” Nickerson said. “…It’s very, very fine work, and you have to have a lot of imagination about how you can represent the things that are out there in a scale that’s appropriate.”
Rather than selling the dioramas, Warnke enjoys donating them to be put on display or giving them to people like Nickerson who have made a local impact.
“I like to pick people that have not just done things for me but have been an asset to the community,” Warnke said. “…I like to say, ‘I appreciate what you’re doing.’ That’s why I do it.”
Warnke moved to Sheridan from South Dakota in 1937 at age 2 and has resided in the area almost every year since. As a youngster, Warnke sometimes drew horses for classmates, but that was the extent of his artistic creativity. Warnke excelled at mechanical drawing while at Sheridan High School but didn’t take any art courses, so he is an almost entirely self-taught artist.
Warnke joined the Air Force in January 1953 and served for four years before returning to Sheridan. He worked odd jobs and attended college for a few months before dropping out. Despite the struggles when he arrived, Warnke eventually became a certified carpenter. He worked as a carpenter for about five years before co-founding his own company, KWN Construction.
After the construction business, Warnke showed dedication to his new craft, working six to eight hours most days in a workspace connected to his garage.
“I really got into it,” Warnke said. “…I never got tired of it.”
Warnke built his first diorama — measuring 35 by 18 inches — for his daughter. It included rocks, a creek, houses, pine trees and snow with Santa Claus riding a sleigh over the tops of the trees.
Most of his figurine carvings are made from wood, but Warnke has created a few clay and bronze items as well. Warnke has also made furniture items from a Saguaro cactus, bolo ties, jewelry and cribbage boards from elk horns.
In recent years, glaucoma and macular degeneration have made it tougher for Warnke to carve the fine details on figurines, but he still works for a few hours most afternoons.
Warnke still yearns to do the quality work that earned him many prizes but no longer has all of the faculties he did in his younger years.
“I still got some desire, but I know I’ll never be in that class again,” Warnke said.
His figurines and dioramas require a lot of work, but Warnke said seeing the reactions on people’s faces make the hours of labor worth it.
Warnke thinks often about the idea of legacy and hopes to pass some of the works onto his descendants. He hopes to be remembered for his positive contributions to the community.
After ending his time in construction, Warnke moved into an entirely new realm, one that should keep his legacy going for years to come.