Before creating fine art, this sculptor traveled the rodeo circuit in true cowgirl fashion.
Long before Deborah Copenhaver Fellows became a nationally known bronze sculptor, she was a cowgirl. As a young girl, Fellows was raised on a ranch in northern Idaho. Her father, Deb Copenhaver, was a world champion bronc rider, and the family raised cattle and quarter horses. Both Fellows and her brother, Jeff Copenhaver, followed in their patriarch’s footsteps, actively competing in the rodeo circuit until Fellows left home to study fine art — first at Washington State University in Pullman and later at Fort Wright College of the Holy Names, a small all-girls college in Spokane, Washington.
While traveling through Italy during her senior year of college, Fellows discovered a second love that rivaled her passion for horses: sculpture. “I saw everything — all the works by the great sculptors,” she says. “It inspired something in me.” However, Fellows’ artistic dreams — and her cowgirl way of life — took a brief backseat to making a living. Working in interior design for several years, she eventually founded her own company, Classic Interiors, in Spokane. The experience inadvertently helped her launch her future career in fine art: “I learned management skills and business skills,” she says. “You cannot be a successful artist without those in this day and age.”
But the rugged western landscape still called her name. “I’d look at the window and see a horse trailer, and ... ,” she trails off with a sigh. “I yearned to go, to be out there, to have the free, unfettered lifestyle.” Eventually, Fellows gave in to her longings and, along with brother Jeff, hit the road to compete on the winter rodeo circuit. With winnings and money scarce, Fellows decided to regroup in Arizona while she figured out her next move.
While staying with a friend in Chandler, Fellows visited Prescott and met local artist and foundry owner Ernie Phippen, son of Cowboy Artists of America cofounder George Phippen. There, she cast her first bronze. “My path was laid out for me,” she says. “The same year, Jeff became a rodeo world champion. His dreams reached fruition, and mine began.”
Fellows spent the year in Arizona, making bronze sculptures while working as a head wrangler on a dude ranch. Later, she returned to Spokane, where she forged more works — and as time flew by, a career.
Her first commission was a monument to recently deceased hometown hero Bing Crosby at Gonzaga University. Subsequent projects — like the Inland Northwest Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Montana Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the Korean War Memorial on the Capitol grounds in Olympia, Washington — helped cement Fellows’ reputation.
Fellows’ life — and art — would change forever when she married fellow artist, horse enthusiast, and former Cowboy Artists of America president Fred Fellows. The couple moved to Montana, where she became reacquainted with her most poignant source of inspiration: the American West. Although she still did monuments, Fellows began casting a variety of figures, ranging from equestrians and animals to historical and contemporary Western pieces.
Over the years, Fellows has received many commissions, including one for an 8-foot-tall statue of U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater that now stands in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall alongside likenesses of other prominent politicians. She was inducted into the National Sculpture Society in 2008 and the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2009.
Currently Fellows lives and works with her husband on a ranch in Sonoita, Arizona, where the two raise quarter horses and share a studio. Avid riders and team ropers, they portray in their art the life they live. Creating about four sculptures a year, Fellows currently is finishing up a “bronc rider” in honor of her father.
While she credits her success to her diverse subject matter, Fellows says she has a special place in her heart for cowgirl and equine art. “I like the history. I like the pride. I like the integrity of the cowgirl way of life.”
Deborah Copenhaver Fellows is represented by Trailside Galleries in Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery in Tucson, Arizona, and Santa Fe; Big Horn Galleries in Cody, Wyoming, and Tubac, Arizona; Wind River Gallery in Aspen, Colorado; and Broadmoor Galleries in Colorado Springs, Colorado. See her work at Cowgirl Up!, March 18 – May 8, at the Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg, Arizona.
From the April 2016 issue.