Cold Mornin' Cow Camp by Bill Nebeker. Photography: Christopher Marchetti Photography/Courtesy Bill Nebeker
Cold Mornin' Cow Camp by Bill Nebeker. Photography: Christopher Marchetti Photography/Courtesy Bill Nebeker

Cowboy Artist of America sculptor Bill Nebeker talks about upholding the traditions of Remington and Russell and capturing the authentic cowboy life.

At the tail end of an Arizona summer that brought phenomenal rains and left the land greener than he could ever remember seeing it, C&I caught up with renowned Western artist Bill Nebeker to talk about his mission of “breathing life into the legends of the American West” and what he’s working on for the upcoming annual Cowboy Artists of America show, October 15 – November 27, 2016.

Cowboys & Indians: Congratulations to you and Doug Hyde on your award wins at Prix de West for your sculptures. Your bronze Cold Mornin’ Cow Camp walked away with the Express Ranches Great American Cowboy Award. Tell us about that particular honor.

Bill Nebeker: The award is named for an organization owned by Mr. Robert Funk, a businessman, arts patron, and philanthropist out of Oklahoma who has a fondness for the American West. Instead of doing awards for just oil and watercolors, they added this as an extra award for the piece of art that best represented the meaning and feeling of the great American cowboy. I was totally taken by surprise. It was such an honor.

The piece portrays something that I’ve seen a lot. It’s just something that takes place in cow camps all across the West. You can go anywhere in the West — Texas, New Mexico, Arizona — and in the morning see a scene just like that.

You’re waiting in the morning for them to bring in the horses. If you’re out on a camp somewhere, you’re always having that last little cup of coffee. It’s a morning of crispness, extra cool, and there’s a guy with a saddle, looking off to the left, waiting for the horses to come. I guess I captured it. Being cowboy-oriented myself, winning for that piece was even more special.

C&I: You know the actual cowboy experience firsthand, having been raised in and around it in both Idaho and Arizona, and it’s important to you that you capture it authentically. Besides personal experience, you also draw from history. What kinds of things in the Old West speak to you as an artist?

Nebeker: My main source is contemporary living cowboys working today. That was one thing that made Western art so great for [Charles M.] Russell and [Frederic] Remington, especially Russell: He captured the things he was living. (Remington loved the military, and that tends to be his better stuff.) One of the things that has always made Western art different is that it’s usually telling a story. To me, that’s what makes it special. I’m always fascinated by what goes on in the West, whether it’s historical or contemporary.

I would do my contemporary work, but I got fascinated with Native Americans and early Texas Rangers and pioneers. I would read and read and go to museums and started thinking about things and how I might represent them in art. I became especially interested in Native Americans — every little piece of gear, every nuance on their dress had meaning. Just like when I’m presenting a way of life that someone is actually living today, I think it’s my duty to present that in a correct manner and still do what I have to do for art. On the art side, there’s composition and emotion to consider, but why don’t I go ahead and also make it accurate. That was what was so great about Russell’s work. He wanted those cowboys [to see what he’d done and say] “Boy, that’s what it was.”

C&I: Is that the greatest praise?

Nebeker: It means more to me to have a cowboy look at my work and say, “Boy, you got it!” than to have a critic of some kind tell me, “You did a good job, so you can have a medal.” I would much rather have the feeling I get when the person I’m doing that lives this life looks at it and tells me I did a good job. The same applies to doing Native American subjects. The challenge is to do the best job I can of presenting the period, aspects of their life and tribe. My duty is to study and get it as accurate as I can and also make it pleasing. It’s the same with a historical piece: It needs to be accurate and authentic along with fulfilling the job of the artistic aspects.

C&I: Accuracy and aesthetics should both count in Western art — sort of what Cowboy Artists of America stands for. ...

Nebeker: Sometimes in the art world, there’s a feeling that accuracy doesn’t mean a hoot. This is where Cowboys Artists of America has really made a difference. The CA were really the ones that people came to judge Western artwork by. The CA opened the doors to Western art in a big way. It’s important to CA that things be true and authentic. What we stood for, what CA will always stand for, is to uphold the traditions of Russell and Remington in human figures and accurately represent the life of the West, as it was and is.

C&I: Along those lines, what are you working on now?

Nebeker: I just finished my last piece for the CA show. It’s in the foundry being cast right now. I’ll have three pieces in the show. One is of a horse bucking. It’s about 30 inches tall and it’s called Waltzing Across Texas. Then there’s one of a Native American Kiowa sitting cross-legged with arrows lying on the ground and one in his hand; he’s honing the iron tip on a rock, with his bow and quiver next to him. That’s called Kiowa Iron-Tipped Medicine Arrow.

It’s fascinating studying about the Southern tribes, the Comanches, Kiowa, etc. They had access to iron heads as far back as the 1700s. They raided into Mexico and would get the narrow iron bands around the wooden wine casks. They had access to blacksmith tools. They would cut out those bands and make their own iron heads. That was an industrial revolution for the Native American. They considered these arrows a gift from the Creator; that’s why they’re called medicine arrows.

The third piece is the smallest. It’s a big mule deer buck bedded down in front of a dead tree. There’s some brush and rocks, and in front is a big flat rock with petroglyphs of a human figure with three deer figures bouncing away. I have seen that actual petroglyph. My wife, Merry, came up with the title for that piece: Among His Ancestors. All three pieces will be at the CA show (October 15 – November 27) in Oklahoma City.

Watch for our feature story on Bill Nebeker in an upcoming issue of C&I. Find more about the Cowboy Artists of America annual exhibit online.