We talked with Wyoming artist D. Michael Thomas about his friendship with the late Chris LeDoux and Just LeDoux It, the sculpture he created in his honor.
Welcoming visitors to Cheyenne Frontier Days in Frontier Park this summer will be a magnificent new bronze sculpture of one of Wyoming’s most beloved native sons: the late and legendary Chris LeDoux. Nearly six years in the making, the 14 x 17-foot sculpture called Just LeDoux It was a labor of love for artist D. Michael Thomas. A Wyoming native himself, Thomas has two major pieces at the University of Wyoming at Laramie, two pieces in Sheridan, four in his hometown of Buffalo, a huge one of LeDoux in Kaycee, and the upcoming one in Cheyenne.
Thomas was also a friend of LeDoux’s.
“He was everything good,” he says. For Thomas, “Mr. Wyoming” was a cowboy and a gentleman, the incarnation of the Cowboy Code — a man of his word, a talented musician, an accomplished athlete and rodeo star, a rancher, a builder, a sculptor, and much more. What especially animates Thomas’ memories and this latest work of art is LeDoux’s heart: a devoted husband, father, grandfather; a cherished friend; and a neighbor to all.
C&I talked with Thomas about his friendship with LeDoux and why this new bronze of him matters so much to him.
Cowboys & Indians: How did you meet Chris LeDoux?
D. Michael Thomas: I met Chris early on but really got to know him as a friend when I was running the feed store. He had a ranch and used to buy feed from me. We got to talking and discovered we had a lot in common. We lived about 40 miles apart, but he would come in and we’d share ideas about building our log cabins and barns, playing guitar and writing songs, and we talked about art and sculpture. Chris was an exceptional sculptor himself. I’m convinced that had he pursued that instead of music he would have done equally well. We would often be on the phone strumming our guitars and bouncing off lyrics to new songs he was writing. His music career really took off when Garth Brooks wrote him into his hit song “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old).” After that, Chris seemed to become more famous in all our laymen’s eyes. Occasionally, he would send me a new CD of his latest work, and I always enjoyed some of his inscriptions on the cover, written with a Sharpie.
Breakin' Through, 2014, 32" h x 24" l x 24' w, ed. 2 (sold out)
C&I: How did the project for the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo come to you?
Thomas: When Chris died in 2005, I wanted to do something to honor him. I was heartsick, and his family was grieving, so I didn’t approach them for about a year. In 2006, I spoke to his wife, Peggy, and she loved the idea. I worked for the next five years on Good Ride Cowboy, a sculpture of Chris riding at the National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City. He was the only rider to cover all 10 head of broncs, becoming the world champion that day and taking home the gold buckle. The sculpture is on display in LeDoux’s hometown of Kaycee, Wyoming. When the piece was completed in 2011, I proposed it to the Frontier Days committees and have been trying to get it there since, but it wasn’t until the current CEO, Tom Hirsig, wanted Chris LeDoux to be honored on his watch that the wheels started turning. Hirsig proposed the idea of a competition for a sculpture to Chris’ family, but the family told him “no one but Mike.” Wanting to do something special for the 125th anniversary for the Cheyenne Rodeo, the idea was finally accepted about two and a half years ago, and the process of Just LeDoux It was on its way.
C&I: What was the most challenging aspect of doing this bronze sculpture of him?
Thomas: The most challenging part about this for me was to please the LeDoux family — to get the likeness as close as I could to Chris’ anatomy and face. His family was so gracious. They lent me several photographs of Chris. And not only that, but they loaned me all his rodeo gear — his chaps, his spurs, his rigging — and also his beloved Guild guitar. His boys even modeled for me, one of whom is the spitting image of his father. It was very satisfying to get to know his family. I knew Peggy, his wife, but this brought us all together, and I was able to get to know his kids. It was very, very important to me to get Chris’ image right for them.
C&I: Did you always know that you wanted to be a sculptor?
Thomas: Absolutely not. I grew up — of course, all of us kids did — wanting to be a cowboy. I was raised around rodeo and even competed in it, but when I got to a certain age, I wanted to be a veterinarian. I went to college and got my degree in pre-veterinary medicine and animal science. My junior year, I had a friend who did bronze artwork, and it really intrigued me. So I picked up a clump of wax and a few tools down at the bookstore and would just lose myself in sculpting little figurines. The animal anatomy that I had learned from the pre-vet courses helped me sculpt my wax horses in detail. I had all the images in my head — I didn’t sketch them on paper. After I graduated, I never got into a vet school, so I went into agribusiness for the next 16 years instead. I became an ag-banker for several years and then ran a feed store.
After about eight years at the store, a local bank, knowing that I sculpted a bit, came to me and wanted to commission me to do something for their 100th anniversary. I had never pursued my art professionally, but this was the turning point for me. I presented my idea at a board meeting. Three board meetings later, I had to make the decision to quit my job and become a full-time artist. It was very spooky to give up my regular paycheck, benefits, and all, but I plunged in with both feet, learning along the way. I talked myself into it, and I did it. It took me a year to complete my project for the bank, and I’ve never looked back.
After the Dust Settles, 2004, 18" h x 18" l x 14" w, ed. 35 (sold out)
C&I: Of all your sculptures and monuments, do you have a favorite?
Thomas: I did a monument for my alma mater, the University of Wyoming, called Breakin’ Through. It depicts an early 1900s-era cowgirl coming through a wall. The wall is 25 feet tall; the sculpture is 16 feet. The university is built mostly of limestone quarry rock, so I tried to emulate that look.
A major benefactor had asked if I would consider sculpting a female on this bucking horse. After some pondering, I went and studied the clothing of that era and absolutely got caught up in capturing their homemade silk blouses, split skirts, decorative kidney belts, beaded gauntlets, wild rags, and 10-gallon hats. For a little twist, to poke fun at her male counterpart, I have her smiling — she knows it’s a horse her brother can’t ride. I will leave it up to the viewer what this sculpture means to them. Wyoming is known as the Equality State: first women to vote, first woman governor, first woman justice of the peace, first women to serve in the legislature, and many more.
I have another favorite piece called After the Dust Settles, which depicts two war horses — an Indian pony and a cavalry horse — decked out in their tack of the time in 1874. They found a quiet spot during a heated battle, before they were rounded up and dealt with. Their riders fought relentlessly for their beliefs; however, the horses show no animosity. Although the work stands on its own merits, the goal is to allow the viewer to form their own perception.
Cheyenne Frontier Days — “The Daddy of ’Em All” rodeo — is scheduled for July 23 – August 1, 2021; check cfdrodeo.com for updates and for purchase information for bronzes of D. Michael Thomas’ Just LeDoux It (24” h x 29” l x 14” w, edition of 50). Visit the artist online at dmichaelthomas.com.
From our July 2021 issue