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Bill Nebeker

A Lifelong Journey By Sara Gilbert Frederick

56  ART of the WEST • May/June 2018


Above - Livin’ The Life (Wall Plaque) bronze, 16˝ wide “In the early morning light, the ranch crew are mounted and ready to ride out to work the gathering. You can hear spurs, a’jinglin’ and horses working the rollers in their bits. The Cowboss says, “Boys, there are people all around the world who would give everything they own, just to be ridin’ out with us this morning. They all agree and know working cowhands are living the life other just dream of.”

Opposite Page Cold Mornin’ Cow Camp, bronze, 23” high “Everyday life of the cowboy begins before dawn, with coffee and hot grub, as he waits for the day’s horses (remuda) to come in. He picks his horse, saddles, and heads out to gather cattle. He is probably on a remote cow camp with only his bedroll, saddle, rope, and gear for several weeks. The job he and the cowhands have is to find cows with new calves, gather and brand them, and get an exact count for the boss. When done, they repair fences, doctor cattle, check water tanks, head to another remote camp, and do it over again ‘til the job is complete. This cowboy is beginning another day in a cold morning cow camp.”

T

he first sculpture Bill Nebeker cast was of two mountain men. He had been crafting small clay pieces at his kitchen table in the evenings, after working all day with other artists at George Phippen’s Bear Paw Bronze Foundry in Skull Valley, near Nebeker’s home in Prescott, Arizona. “It was pretty crude,” Nebeker admits. But it sold. So did the others he made after it. It wasn’t long before he was making more selling sculptures than he was at the foundry, so he gave up his job and starting sculpting full time: cowboys, mostly, but also Native Americans and wildlife. That was in the late 1960s, when Western art was just becoming popular. Back then, every idea Nebeker had was new. Fast forward five decades, however, and original ideas are not quite as easy to come by. “After 50 years, the hardest thing is not to repeat ideas,” he says. “Now I have to do a lot more thinking to come up with an idea I like.” Fortunately, there’s no shortage of opportunities for Nebeker to be inspired. As a member of the Cowboy Artists of America since 1978, he travels to ranches around the country every year. And he’s always happy to lend a hand on the ranches around the home he and his wife Merry share in Prescott. He always tucks his camera in his pocket on those occasions, and sometimes the pictures he takes spark an idea. “I’ve never had a photo that I looked at and said, ‘That would make a great bronze,’” he explains. “But sometimes looking at my photos will get my creative juices flowing.” More often, however, something just comes to mind and he lets it develop in his head. “The majority of my ideas come when I’m just sitting around,” Nebeker says. “I’ll remember something that sparks an idea. Then I sit around and build the image in my mind, until I can see the finished sculpture. Then I get out my base and armature, put the clay on it and create it as I go.” Nebeker moved to Prescott as a child, because his doctor had heard that it had the cleanest air in the United States. And indeed, the high mountain air did May/June 2018 • ART of the WEST


cure him of his asthma, which is one of the reasons he’s stayed there for the past 64 years. But relocating from Idaho to Arizona also introduced him to the cowboy lifestyle, which Nebeker quickly embraced. He saved his money to buy a horse, found a place to board it, and fell in with friends who helped him learn the art of calf roping. Nebeker’s initiation into art happened in much the same way. He never had any formal artistic training, but his ability was apparent. As a kid, he whittled: chunks of wood became dogs, horses, even Viking ships. “I was always 3D,” he laughs. “While other artists were drawing, I was working with my hands to create things.” When he enrolled at the University of Arizona, Nebeker decided to ART of the WEST • May/June 2018

Three Amigos, bronze, 18˝ wide “There is an old saying: A good dog is worth three cowboys, and a bad dog is like losing a whole crew of cowboys. Some ranches don’t allow dogs at all, but I feel a good, well trained one is a wonder to watch. Rough country outfits use dogs to find and hold cattle that try to get away during gatherings. Open country ranches use other breeds of dogs to herd their cattle. A cowboy with a good dog can get a lot of work done. Not every horse will allow a dog to hitch a ride; it takes some training and getting used to. This cowboy needs to cover a large amount of rough country and is giving one amigo a ride on his other amigo. This bronze will be at the 2018 Prix de West Show.”

major in geology. That only lasted a year. He returned to Prescott and took a job on a survey crew for the U.S. Forest Service, while courting Merry. One evening, when they planned to go to a movie, his parents convinced him to attend an exhibit of George Phippen’s work at a local bank. He did, and it changed his life. “Merry says I had an epiphany,” he says. “I was absolutely mesmerized by those bronze sculptures. I went back to that bank every spare hour I had, just to look at those sculptures and wonder how he had done that.” Nebeker was so inspired that he went out and bought clay to try his hand at sculpting. He came home with pottery clay, which dried and broke, as he tried to shape it. “I had absolutely no idea what I was doing,” he admits. He knew enough, however, to know that he needed professional advice. So he took his little clay pieces down to the bronze foundry that Phippen’s


Waltzing Across Texas, bronze, 30˝ high “The images of horse and rider, seemingly in sync with each other, has always been enthralling to people. Ancient paintings on cave walls, horse sculptures from long-gone civilizations, still fascinate. Whether jumping hurdles, dashing over the finish line, or a cowboy staying on a rodeo bronc, we know these wondrous events take years of training and practice for both horse and rider to achieve the action, grace, and beauty we so enjoy. Their speed and ability are based on knowing each other well and being in tune and in time together, much like dancers. My wife and I have trained each other to know what the timing of the next step will be and, therefore, very seldom trip. So I decided to create this sculpture of an experienced cowboy and his horse battling through what I call their war dance, as if they are ‘waltzing across Texas.’”

May/June 2018 • ART of the WEST


Bill & The Eyes of Texas statue

Over the Rim, bronze, 19˝ high “I have always enjoyed being in the forest grasslands and outdoor camping, fishing, and hunting with family and friends. As I sit for hours, camouflaged in the underbrush, watching silently through binoculars and photographing the wildlife, I have been inspired to create sculptures of antelope, big horn sheep, mule deer, and elk. I have often spotted bull elk quietly grazing through a conifer-lined mountain meadow, or in the lower cedar canyon country. Here, we encounter two startled bull elk bailing over the ledge of a rim rock outcropping for a quick escape into the thick forest.”

family operated nearby. Phippen’s widow showed him the studio, shared books with him, and eventually offered him a job. Nebeker didn’t hesitate to accept. “I left my $2-an-hour job with the Forest Service for a $1.50-an-hour job at the foundry,” he says. “That’s how I learned the foundry business.” During the eight years he worked at the foundr y, Nebeker learned by trial and error how to create bronze castings, from making rubber molds and pouring molten metal to welding the pieces together to look like the original clay sculpture. He also learned how to sculpt to get the best outcomes from the foundr y. ART of the WEST • May/June 2018

“I know what will make a better mold,” he explains. “I know all the aspects of what happens at the foundr y, so I know how to sculpt to make a better cast.” The foundry that now casts Nebeker’s sculptures is just a mile and a half down the road from his house, and he remains intimately involved with the process. “They do it, but I go down there and tell them how I want it finished,” he says. “I tell them where to dissect the clay to make the molds. And nothing leaves the foundry before I see it personally.” In June, Nebeker and Merry will celebrate their 53rd anniversary. They started dating, when Bill was

21 and Merry was just 16. “I had to take her brother along on all of our dates for the first year,” he remembers with a laugh. They married as soon as she graduated from high school and now have three children and seven grandchildren, all living in Arizona. “Merry has been the biggest blessing in my life,” Nebeker says. “I wouldn’t be here, if it weren’t for her. She was willing to go on this starving-artist journey with me; she’s been my partner, my righthand buddy. She’s gone through this whole thing with me.” Family has always been his first priority. Nebeker’s studio, which his dad helped him build, is attached to


Broken Words—Broken Peace, bronze, 28˝ high “By the 1860s, the tides of cultural conflict had grown too strong to be reconciled by either whites or Indians. Treaties had been broken by renegade factions on both sides. In November 1864, after the brutal Sand Creek Massacre, more than 2,000 Cheyenne, Northern Arapahoe, and Sioux warriors set up encampments along the Republican River in Kansas. There was a report that said, ‘The White Man has taken our lands, killed our game, and now kills our women and children. Their treaties are only crooked, broken words. Break the peace pipe and raise the war club.’ This bronze will be at the 2018 Prix de West Show.”

his house, so he was always around as his children were growing up. “I was a nighthawk,” he says. “I would play with the kids during the day, then go down to the studio and work until 1 or 2 a.m.” Much of Nebeker’s existence has remained stable and relatively static: He’s lived in the same place almost all of his life, he’s been married to the same woman for more than 50 years, and he’s focused on the same subjects for most of his career. But for all that has stayed the same, much has also changed. The business of art has changed, for one. When Nebeker started, there were only two big shows each year—the Cowboy Artists of America and what is now the Prix de West— and there were only a handful of galleries showing Western art. “Now many galleries have art auctions and every museum has a selling show,” he says. “And maybe the biggest change is that you can sit at home and order your artwork online. It’s a whole new ballgame now.” Nebeker’s sculptures, too, have evolved over time. “When I started, I had a very tight, slick finish,” he says. “Now, it’s much looser, with more texture on the patina.” Nebeker sees that evolution as essential to his success as an artist. “I tell people that you can never live long enough to learn all there is to learn about art,” he says. “If you ever reach the point where you can say ‘I’ve got this’ and be done learning, then you’ll have reached the halting point of your career.” Nebeker is nowhere near that point. He still gets out to ranches and rodeos regularly, so he can soak up inspiration and continue to learn as much as he can about the people whose livelihoods he molds with his hands. Authenticity, he says, is critical to his work. “There’s so much more to it than a good composition,” Nebeker explains. “You have to be authentic. You have to get everything right. I’m portraying someone’s way of life; I have to try my best to present it in the proper manner.” Sara Gilbert Frederick is a writer living in Mankato, Minnesota. May/June 2018 • ART of the WEST

Bill Nebeker, Art of the West, May June 2018  

Trailside Galleries is pleased to offer feature article "A Lifelong Journey" on Bill Nebeker

Bill Nebeker, Art of the West, May June 2018  

Trailside Galleries is pleased to offer feature article "A Lifelong Journey" on Bill Nebeker

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