Painter and Cowboy Artists of America member Jack Sorenson weaves the spirit of the Old West into his artwork.
“My destiny is to be a painter,” declares Jack Sorenson. And the Cowboy Artists of America member has a lifetime of success to prove his point.
Sorenson’s Western art story indeed has a very providential flavor. After all, how many kids grow up riding horses, driving stagecoaches, and reenacting gunfights on the edge of legendary Palo Duro Canyon? And how many children recruit the family dog to model for a painting — at the age of 3?
Old West inspiration came early for Sorenson, at Six Gun City, a cowboy theme park with riding stables housed in a Western town he and his father built on the Palo Duro Canyon rim outside Amarillo, Texas. Gunsmoke producer John Mantley once visited, and impressed, asked Sorenson, “Who built your town?” The then-16-year-old replied, “I did.”
When Sorenson was a kid in the 1960s, his dad had taken him to see many of the Old West movie studios. The young artist studied the sets as he designed the buildings for Six Gun City. The sketches and plans he made suggested he had all the skills he’d need for the career he’d committed to as a 10-year-old in a New Mexico cafe. “There was a calendar by [Western artist] Tom Ryan by our table,” Sorenson recalls. “And I told my dad, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”
His father wasn’t impressed. But Jack believes he was led to that very table by the calendar that day. “It’s a total gift from God,” he says with conviction.
He feels the same about the art career that has followed. “I’m in exactly the right place, at exactly the right time, and doing exactly what God wants me to do,” Sorenson, a committed Christian, declares on his website. “You can’t ask for more than that.”
His abilities were nurtured in the landscape of the Palo Duro Canyon, the so-called Grand Canyon of Texas, in the state’s panhandle. On the southern high plains, known as El Llano Estacado or the Staked Plains, the area has inspired his paintings since he was 16. “The range of colors is unmatched,” Sorenson says of the famous canyon, which is the country’s second largest, after the Grand Canyon. “At least once a month I make myself go outside and paint. I think that keeps my eyes sharp for seeing those colors.”
Nothing completes a painting of the canyon quite like horses. “If I can combine both of those in one painting, I’ve hit a home run,” he says. “It’s kind of hard to draw and paint horses coming down a hill, but I grew up in the bottom of the canyon, so I saw it every day.”
Running horses and action are a trademark of a Sorenson painting, so the Old West, which is most often his subject, lends itself quite well. “In the Old West,” he says, “you can also put so much more drama in, because there’s always that element of danger — of Indians or outlaws or whatever it is. Probably half of my paintings are Old West action.”
And it’s a subject he knows firsthand, several generations removed from the Old West, but authentic action nonetheless. “Growing up with Six Gun City, I actually drove a stagecoach for six years. I wore a six gun. We did mock gunfights.” He was also breaking horses for the operation. As a newlywed, his bride convinced him to give up that job after an especially rough day in the saddle, on the eve of his first one-man art show. “I would train horses during the day, and then I’d try to paint at night,” he says. “I was so sore, I could not lift my right arm. And my wife said, ‘No more colts. We’re done. You’re a full-time artist.’”
Dord Fitz, the retired head of the University of Kentucky art department, went to that first show. “Your draftsmanship is unbelievable,” he told Sorenson. “But, boy, you need some work on your color, and I teach a weekly class.” Sorenson signed up.
Fitz would coach Sorenson for the next 15 years, until his death. “I’d still be with him today,” Sorenson says. “Whatever my weakness was, he helped me.”
That first show sold out. Nearly 50 years and 3,500 paintings later — including more than 80 magazine covers and countless greeting and Christmas cards — Sorenson received the ultimate honor in 2021, when he was inducted into the prestigious Cowboy Artists of America, whose mission — “to authentically preserve and perpetuate the culture of Western life in fine art” — he has long shared. Becoming a “CA” marked a high point in his career. “I was telling somebody the other day, all my dreams have come true.”
Today Sorenson and his wife, Jeanne, live on the edge of the Palo Duro Canyon, in a spot his grandfather brought him to when he was just 11. “Much as you love this canyon, you ought to build your house right here,” Sorenson recalls his grandfather saying. “Took me 40-some years, but I finally got ’er done.”
Living where he does, painting what he wants — Sorenson says he feels “like the most blessed man on earth to get to do this. I’m almost 70, and I still get a kick out of every painting.” And he especially enjoys how people connect with his paintings. “I get the sweetest letters,” he says. “They’ll say, ‘My dad was in hospice, and the only thing he wanted by his bed were your Christmas cards.’ And they show me a picture of this guy with my Christmas cards all taped around his bed. I don’t know how you could have a better way to make a living but to bring joy to people.”
The Cowboy Artists of America 57th Annual Exhibition & Sale takes place November 3 and 4 at the Will Rogers Memorial Center in Fort Worth, Texas; for more information, visit Cowboys Artists of America on Facebook and at cowboyartistsofamerica.com. Visit the artist online at jacksorensonfineart.com.
Lead Image: C-Sick, 1996.
This article appears in our November/December 2023 issue.