From the Alamo to the U.S. Capitol, the striking sculptures of former competitive roper and artist Deborah Copenhaver Fellows are as boundless as they are poignant.
She has created a Jim Bowie monument that stands outside the Alamo. A bronze stagecoach that’s in the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame. A Barry Goldwater sculpture for Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. Yet what Deborah Copenhaver Fellows is best known for is, “I do women and animals. I love doing horses. I am kind of known for doing the feminine side of the Western world.” For her, the enduring appeal of the cowgirl can be chalked up to the fact that “a cowgirl has integrity, independence, faithfulness, loyalty. Independence is a lot of it.”
Gentle Nudge, 2022, 24.5" x 9" x 20", bronze, edition of 25.
Fellows may not be roping competitively anymore now that she’s in her 70s, but she sure as heck is still sculpting. This is a gal who was barrel racing at 11, driving a two-horse trailer at 15, and sculpting her first commissioned bronze at 19. “I have people asking me, ‘Why are you working this hard?’” she says. “You know, I’m gonna be doing this as hard as I can as long as my body allows me, and I’m pretty blessed with a hardy constitution. It’s like, why would you quit doing what you love to do the most?”
She’s reminded of an old expression: “The best thing you’ve ever done is the next one.” It’s a constant, she says.
Fellows has always had drive. Winning commissions demanded it. “It hasn’t been all as successful as it looks now,” she says. “It’s been successful, but it’s had its moments that have been painful. Now I’m rolling. You work for so long to get to the point where you can get commissions. Now everyone thinks, Man, you picked the right profession. If they only knew the staying power that I’ve had to exert. I’ve made a living at it since the ’70s. I’m proud of it.”
Buckaroo Bell, 19" x 10.25" diameter, bronze, edition of 35.
To understand that staying power, consider that Fellows was born in 1948 in Spokane, Washington, and grew up in rugged northern Idaho on a cattle and quarter horse ranch on the side of a mountain. In winter, she had to ride an old mare down the mountain to reach the school bus, and then she’d put the reins up over the mare’s neck to send her home.
Horses became a favorite subject. What does she love most about them? “I love breeding them. I love feeding them. I love riding them. I like competing on them. I’ve been blessed to smell the breath of Secretariat before he died. I just like observing them and looking them in the eye. I just have a heart for them. One of my bronzes is In My Dreams They Run Free. I can’t look at a horse that’s really performing or jumping or doing anything without it bringing tears to my eyes.”
I Saddle My Own Horse, 2007, 35.5" x 18" x 18", broke, edition of 50.
Having sculpted more than a hundred pieces — many of them representing real-life figures and horses — Fellows is not only astute at anatomy, but also at revealing an individual’s personality, or, as she puts it, “Being able to capture an emotion, or an attitude, or the essence of an individual.”
When she was just getting into the art business and just getting to know artist Fred Fellows, she asked him for a letter of reference so she could secure a commission. He wrote a short one: “She’ll do what she says she can.” Which pretty much sums up Deborah Copenhaver Fellows. “That’s how I operate,” she says. The two married in 1990 and live on a ranch in Sonoita, Arizona, south of Tucson.
All Work and No Play, 2017, 23.75" x 18" x 13.5", bronze, edition of 35.
Her firsthand experience with the ranching lifestyle is apparent in Buckaroo Bell, conveying scenes of cowboys roping, branding, and gathering at chuck wagons. “That bell has all the aspects of ranching, and it’s a beautiful ringing bell,” she points out. Or the mare nudging the stud in Gentle Nudge. “It’s a sweet little subtle thing that those mares do when it’s breeding season.”
For I Saddle My Own Horse, which depicts a cowgirl carrying a saddle, Fellows found a local model. “She was a young gal I met down at the feed store here in Sonoita. Pretty, young, vital. With femininity and attitude. Standing up for herself. Knowing she has to saddle her own horse to make it in life. Don’t be leaning on your kin or who you married or your degree. Go do it yourself,” Fellows says.
Giving Thanks, 42" x 138" x 30", bronze, edition 50.
All Work and No Play likewise spotlights a multifaceted cowgirl, this time at the mailbox. “Here she is out working. She’s got her chinks on, and she can’t wait to put that heel on right there,” Fellows says. The action sculpture When Horses Made Heroes is a tribute to her dad, who was a world champion saddle bronc rider. While cowboys were often lauded as heroes, Fellows remembers, “My dad said to me, ‘But Sis, it was the horses that made the heroes.’” Her dad also inspired the playful Never Touch a Cowboy’s Hat, which shows a puppy inside a cowboy hat.
An Indian woman holds a Hudson’s Bay wool blanket overhead in the historical Where the Sun Goes. “It’s about the mystery of life,” Fellows says. “These people were so dialed in to the earth and the sun and that mystery of faith.”
Where the Sun Goes, 2016, 26" x 18.5" x 11", bronze, edition of 30.
Deborah Copenhaver Fellows is represented by Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery in Tucson, Arizona; Mountain Trails Galleries in Sedona, Arizona; Big Horn Galleries in Cody, Wyoming, and Tubac, Arizona; Wind River Gallery in Aspen, Colorado; Broadmoor Galleries in Colorado Springs, Colorado; and The Lodge at Whitefish Lake in Whitefish, Montana.
This article appears in our October 2023 issue, available on newsstands or through the C&I Shop.