Western artist Jack Walker’s monumental Baylor Bear bronze sculpture showpiece placed in Waco
Nothing has changed, he still rides the range, earning a cowboy’s pay. His hands seldom idle, he saddles and bridles the horse he has sculpted in clay. There are fences to mend and cattle to tend, gullies are hiding the strays; And when the day is through, he’ll bronze it too. His life sculpted in clay.
NIKKI PIERCE – Sister of western sculptor Jack Walker
Even though it might have been a while back since he branded a calf or wrangled a horse, and even though his present occupation seems so far from his ranching roots, once a cowboy, always a cowboy. Bosque County resident Jack Walker has become the real deal when it comes to sculpture, just as he had been living the life of an authentic cowboy during his ranching days.
A man of many talents, Walker – for his cowboy essence – has been asked to recite a poem at the dedication ceremony of the John A. Lomax Amphitheater in Meridian on Sept. 19. The amphitheater’s name honors Bosque County’s recorder and thus preserver of cowboy ballads and earliest Mississippi Delta blues.
Like many Western artists, Walker’s art is a glimpse into of the daily life of the American Cowboy. In his case, the art depicts life and life depicts art. He lived the strenuous life of a cowboy and rancher for many years – riding through the biting wind in search of that group of rogue cows; blacksmithing his own horseshoes because there wasn’t a blacksmith within 85 miles; mending fence in the blazing heat of summer; breaking more bones than he can remember breaking horses and wrangling cattle.
And it shows in his work, in the authenticity, the detailing, the movement, the personality. Artists without that “boots on the ground” experience of the Western/cowboy lifestyle do not have the intimate knowledge of the subject matter that infuses into the art.
The most important function of Walker’s sculptures is to honor the West in his bronzes. Likewise in ancient Greece, the most important function of Greek sculpture and art was to honor the gods and goddesses.
Walker’s bronzes – big and small – breathe the West, define the lifestyle close to nature, representing the essence of his subjects whether animal or human. He likes to say he is “sculpting the West, one bronze at a time.”
Because of the surface texture, and often in a deep cognac patina, some of Walker’s bronzes look as if they are carved out of wood and then polished to shine as they do. He plays with colored patinas, giving a simple standing statuette vibrancy and interest. The perfectly detailed representational sculptures grip us, capturing our imagination as whole histories of cow hands or gold-rush miners flash through our minds.
An added aspect to sculpture versus a painting is the fact you can walk around a piece, view it from all sides, taking in different details as you do a 360. And every proportion, aspect and facet has to be perfect.
This quality of his work does not go unnoticed, and several organizations have commissioned pieces with the latest being a magnificent and masterful trio of bears. Baylor-grad and Texas First National Bank - Your Bank for Life President and Chief Executive Officer David Littlewood knew he wanted to honor Baylor’s spirit and tradition at their new bank building in downtown Waco on 8th Street. With the showpiece in place, the bank location will undoubtedly become a must-do photo destination for Baylor alumni when they come to town for a game or reunion.
Littlewood had heard of Walker’s creative and artistic skills, and he came to visit Walker at his Bosque Emporium studio. He saw a scale model of a trio of bears, and that was that. It then fell on Walker to translate the table-top sculpture into a Papa Bear that stands over 8 ½ feet tall, tipping the scales at over 1,000 pounds. Baby Bear himself weighs in at around 300 pounds. The bear family was placed in July 2020, and now they await more boulders and landscaping to complete the scene. It turned out to be a bronze bear triumph, a majestic masterpiece for the Baylor mascot.
“I do love doing the big ones,” Walker said. Per figure, he used 800-1,000 pounds of clay, giving him quite the workout.
Growing up in New Mexico around cattle defined his future life. From the early age of four, it was always about the horses. He wanted a life in which horses featured heavily, so he became a cowboy.
“If you could have ducks with the use of a horse, I’d be a duck boy,” Walker said in his signature storytelling style, always with the “wait for it” punch line. “I got kicked out of every art class in High School. I couldn’t draw very well and I wasn’t particularly interested in art.”
So how did he end up being a sculptor? One thing for sure, he bloomed late.
Jack's life was redefined in 1999 when his friend, R.L. Curtin visited the ranch where Walker was working “me, a dog and 15 horses.” Curtin had just taken the first steps into sculpting and was on his way to an exhibit with a clay figure. Walker expressed he wished he could do that. On the way back from the exhibit, Curtin gave him a 10-pound block of sculpting clay.
“I can’t teach you how to do it,” Curtin said. “Only just keep turning it and looking at it.”
“And I started messing with it,” Walker said.
He asked old ranch hand Gayle Taylor to be his model. On a side note, Walker said the ranch hand had an intellectual’s vocabulary, saying “That’s a pretty ambitious project for a neophyte.”
And so, the first Jack Walker bust was created, on a melamine plate. Walker paints the conversation that followed with Fran:
“Who put ol’ Gayle’s head on a plate?” Fran asked on seeing the bust.
“I did that,” Walker replied.
“Why didn’t you tell me you could do this?” Fran asked.
“’Cos I didn’t know I could,” Walker said.
But the bust was good enough that Fran straight away saw the potential and wondered how to start marketing the work.
“I’m the broke down, old cowboy – don’t ask me,” Walker responsed.
Walker quickly discovered a talent and passion for sculpting life-like figures of cowboys, horses and cattle. And Fran convinced Walker to give up the physically demanding life of a cowboy and move to Scottsdale, Arizona to pursue an art career.
When a particularly stubborn horse “that had broken a bone of mine every time I tried to train him” accepted another rider without a problem at a sale, and his Catahoula-Lacey cross dog got shot, both proved to be deciding factors that helped Walker take the leap.
“I really would like to give this art stuff a try,” Walker said to Fran.
And that's exactly what they did. A caption under a family photo states: “Me and Fran in Scottsdale 1999. Fresh off the ranch, starting my new career!”
“I was a little nervous, but Frannie never weakened,” Walker said. “I am a lucky man. If it wasn’t for Fran, I would still be looking at the butts of cows. And don’t write that. Fran wants me to be more refined, less hick.”
But with that said, it's the “down-to-earth,” straight-talking that makes Walker so approachable, likable and just so fun to be around.
On arriving in Scottsdale, Walker began marketing his artwork through a gallery on Main Street, public demonstrations and art shows as he rapidly built an impressive client base and soon established himself as a respected western artist.
“It took me a year, maybe a year and a half, to believe I could do this,” Walker said. “And then to see that other also believed in me….I am humbled every day about my success. It makes me want to try harder, to do better work.”
When approaching a new piece, Walker just goes straight to it without a definite idea. As he “messes around,” a figure or subject inevitably takes form. The clay guides him to the final subject matter. And if it doesn’t work, he just starts on another lump of clay.
A lump on his work bench attracted a lot of attention and questions on what it was going to become. It was nothing. Just a lump of clay. Walker got tired of the questions, so he put a Native American relief on one side and a period soldier on the other – a mini-Mount Rushmore of the West. All it needs now is a buffalo and voila – a new piece of art.
Besides horses, Walker says he had one other interest as a young man, and that was girls. But he does not have a lot of sculptures of girls. The two in his collection now are on opposite sides of the spectrum. One is showing some serious attitude with a title “You talking to me, cowboy,” alluding to the Robert DeNiro movie “Taxi Driver.” The other girl appears all relaxed, basking in “Sedona Sunshine.”
Come to think of it, Walker has several sculptures with references to movies or television shows. There is a statue of Hugh O’Brien as Wyatt Earp, commissioned by the actor. There is also a “Cool Hand Luke” reference in the piece of a warden with two blood hounds on the scent.
Other pieces and their titles elicit a chuckle like “Labor dispute” of a miner falling over a log trying to convince his mule to get moving. Or “I shoulda been a doctor” of a cowboy, spent after a day on the range. Then there's “A couple of studs,” a sarcastic comment for the rendition of a tired cowboy and his horse, and “Hoss-style take over” depicting a bucking horse that has just thrown its rider.
But even with all that lighthearted humor, Walker also does more contemplative work. His imposing Pawnee Indian bust has a Mona Lisa-esque smile. Is he proud? Is he disdainful? From the left side, he looks serious, as if going into a Pow Wow. From the right, there this hint of a smirk. And depending on how the light hits the magnificent head, the smile seems to move and change, which is fascinating.
Many of his wildlife bronzes do nothing else but portray the magnificent beauty of God’s creations. And speaking of creation, an elegant and delicate piece with a strong reference to Michelangelo’s “Adam’s Creation” in the Sistine Chapel in Rome is accompanied by a poem:
He took the Power of the Sun, the fleetness of the wind, the Spirit of the Sea, and God created Horse.
Walker usually spends his summers at the Rock Creek Cattle Company Resort in Montana. He sets up in the lobby of the club house and “piddles around” – his words – on a piece, talking amiably to any and everyone that shows an interest. In doing so, he draws from a seemingly immense library of cowpoke, outdoorsy anecdotes, always with that humorous twist. With his cowboy hat, yoked shirt, jeans and boots on a six-foot, two-inch frame, he seems larger than life. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, his only visit to Montana was for a three-day show in August.
The refined clientele – owner's of homes on the ranch with a golf course along with offering many outdoor activities where ranch living meets luxury – is drawn to the exquisite sculptures emerging before their eyes, marveling at the sculptor’s craftsmanship, talent and skill. And hearing him spin the tales of his life on the range, they realize Walker knows what he’s talking about.
Walker has entered and won awards at some of the most prestigious fine art shows, like the Bosque Art Classic. In 2008, he won second place sculpture with his piece Catch and Release – no, not about fishing, but on roping a calf. His works presently bring in ten-fold of the purchase price back then. Now, he is less inclined to enter shows, spending his summer months in Montana connecting directly with his buyers. And of course, word-of-mouth his become his best marketing tool.
Walker has been featured in national publications, including Southwest Art, Horses In Art, The Judges Choice and Western Horseman magazines.
Walker replicates that feel of Montana as the resident artist at The Emporium in Clifton, where he has a work space in the back of the store. As he tinkers with a longhorn, tweaking its tail, taking off some clay at the shoulder, Walker is the wonderful contradiction of being an artist – a natural born sculptor by aptitude and talent – but being a cowboy by trade.
After all, he went a whole ranching lifetime without knowing his natural ability to translate what he sees, without sketches or studies, straight from his grey matter to his hands into splendid three dimensional, much sought after bronze figures honoring the West and for all in which it stands.
Photos by SIMONE WICHERS-VOSS & courtesy of JACK WALKER
©2020 Southern Cross Creative, LLP. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.