Jason Scull | A Lifetime Calling

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

DUST DEVIL, BRONZE
DUST DEVIL, BRONZE

The sculpture explodes with energy: a hardscrabble cowboy struggling with all his sinewy might to stay astride a bucking bronc. Man and horse merge in one surpassingly tense yet elegant moment as they rise from the earth, seemingly suspended atop a cloud of dust kicked up by flying hooves.

Even the briefest glance at DUST DEVIL convinces you that here is a sculpture fairly thrumming with reality. The angle of the cowboy’s hat, the rope coiled in one hand, the violent flapping of his chaps, the powerful muscles of the horse’s hind legs, the whiplash motions of mane and tail: every detail bespeaks the truth of western life as it was lived more than a century and a half ago and as it still exists in dwindling pockets of America today. Without even knowing whose hands, mind, and spirit created the work, you feel intuitively that the artist brought to his subject an understanding of ranching that comes not merely from intensive study but also from a lifetime of experience. And, indeed, that pretty much sums up the depth of expertise Jason Scull, a son of south Texas, brings to his sculptures.

American ranching can convincingly claim south Texas as one of its birthplaces. It was here that Spanish vaqueros first introduced cattle in the 1730s. The expansive landscape stretching from the Gulf Coast north and west to the San Antonio area came to be widely known for the vast ranching operations run by cattle barons of the late 19th century, like the legendary and still thriving 825,000-acre King Ranch with its 60,000 head of cattle. But the region was also home to modest spreads where hard-working individuals might run a hundred cows or so to scratch out a living. That’s the region where a man named William Scull first ranched back in the 1830s, and where four generations of his offspring grew up in the ranching life, including William’s great-great-grandson, Jason.

“From the time I was old enough to crawl on a horse, I did,” says Jason Scull, who was born in 1958 on his family’s 3,000-acre ranch outside the town of San Marcos, about 50 miles northeast of San Antonio. Raised in a family steeped in ranching traditions, Scull always felt naturally drawn to the rural western way of life. “I was deeply involved in the Future Farmers of America, showed steers and calves, and was a district officer,” he says.

From his earliest years, however, Scull felt another, equally strong calling, that of the artist. “My mom tells me I was drawing recognizable forms of horses and cows at the age of 2,” he recalls. “At church, my parents gave me colored pencils and paper to keep me quiet, and I’d use the pew as my drawing table.”

THE HACKMORE COLT, BRONZE, 17X10X10
THE HACKMORE COLT, BRONZE, 17X10X10

Still, south Texans are a practical breed, and Jason, the youngest of four children, set out on a path toward what seemed a sensible career, studying veterinary science at Texas A&M University. In his early 20s, he wound up back in San Marcos, earning his living selling real estate and occasionally doing day work on horseback helping out local ranchers.

“But if someone is meant to create, they will,” Scull observes. And at the age of 28, that urge grew irresistible for him. At the San Marcos campus of Texas State University, he enrolled in a basic drawing class. “When the semester was over,” Scull recalls with a self-deprecating chuckle, “the teacher told me that when I came in for the first time with my hat and my boots on, she cringed and thought I didn’t know what I was in for. But she said she found that I was someone who was willing and wanting to learn.” Perhaps also impressed by Scull’s nascent ability to convey three-dimensional forms with two-dimensional lines, the teacher suggested that he try his hand at sculpture.

Back in his bachelor apartment in town, Scull started sculpting little heads from sticks of red, yellow, blue, and green clay he bought at the local five-and-dime store. He moved on to small figures, which he cast himself to get a feel for the process of working in bronze, and he sometimes kept a few of these pieces in the back of his truck.

“And this is where the story gets kind of strange,” Scull relates. One Sunday after church, he and a college friend decided to drive to Kerrville, then home to the Cowboy Artists of America Museum. “I walked into their research library and asked if they offered adult-level workshops, and the librarian said that, yes, in fact, they were having a sculpture workshop in two months.” Despite Scull’s modest protests, the librarian brought in the museum’s education director, who asked Scull if he had any samples of his work. “And I said I had some things out in my truck.”

That’s how Scull found himself among nearly a hundred sculptors attending a weeklong course at the museum. “I was amazed,” he says. “I’d never been exposed to so many artists at one time in one place. I decided after the class that here was where I wanted to be, making and creating.”

He applied and was accepted for another workshop on the anatomy of the horse in motion. It was limited to fewer than 20 participants and taught by renowned western painter and sculptor Jack Swanson. “Jack and I ended up becoming fast friends, and he became my mentor. Jack believed in me and apparently saw something in my work that he thought was good.”

It is Swanson to whom Scull gives credit for helping him transition from “making and creating to selling.” In 1988, Swanson phoned Lizabeth Kyle Western & Wildlife Gallery in Los Olivos, CA, which occupied the space that is now home to Judith Hale Gallery. Kyle carried Swanson’s work, and he convinced her to take on a few pieces by Scull. The pieces sold, and the young sculptor’s career was on its way.

Then, as now, Scull’s sculptures portrayed the south Texas way of life that is in his blood. “You have to understand the nature of cattle and cow horses and cow people, and have a sense of place,” he explains, going on to describe his strong feeling of “kinship with the ranch people of the region, very tough, hardy individuals who have developed a character that is self-reliant and optimistic.”

Scull knows that hardscrabble western life as if it’s imprinted in his very DNA, and such an innate understanding helps determine his creative approach as he works in his 12-by-30-foot studio. It’s a converted wing of a 1930s dairy barn on the family ranch where he lives with his wife, Dianne, and their son, Will.

Scull develops his ideas for pieces with what some sculptors refer to as “pinch models” and what he calls “sketches in clay.” He forms small maquettes no larger than about 6 inches, in which “the basic shapes are there but the details are not defined,” he explains.

Once he’s developed the basic three-dimensional composition, Scull prepares the foundation for the larger-scale actual piece, building an armature of aluminum wire and plumbing fittings mounted to a plywood base. “It’s critical at this stage,” he says, “to capture the gesture in the armature that you want in the finished sculpture.” Finally, he builds up and refines the clay to form the finely detailed master model from which his limited-edition sculptures are cast in bronze…

Featured in April 2008

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