The Seeker of Harmony , bronze, 81 x 48.
By John Villani
It’s lunchtime at the jam-packed HooDoo Cafe in the minuscule Hill Country town of Art, TX. Everyone in the joint seems to know everybody else, and they’re all having a good time.
Sitting in the midst of the hubbub and enjoying a basket of chicken tenders, Bill Worrell engages in the cafe’s chat-’n-chew, which ranges from speculation about weather and livestock prices to the dates for upcoming holiday season get-togethers. But as his attention returns to our interview, this multi-disciplinary artist becomes straight-on serious. “Man, I’ve just got to get busy on those new pieces for my Vail show,” he mutters.
For more than a decade, this native of El Paso and Colorado City, TX, has been one of the southwestern art scene’s most prominent and identifiable artists. His towering sculptures of pictograph-inspired shamans are represented in nearly every southwest-ern art market, and his paintings and jewelry have attracted a national audience. An accomplished author and ceramist, Worrell is also a guitar picker, songwriter, piano player, and poet. And he loves to garden.
Worrell (even his pals call him by his last name) lives 8.1 miles south of Art, TX (population 4), on spectacular ranchlands hugging the banks of the Llano River. Here, in the bucolic serenity of three studio and residence structures built with his own hands, Worrell freely explores the creative energies rippling through his soul.
Symbol III , bronze, 22 x 18, edition 50.
Surrounded by acres of bluebonnets and entertained by the constant presence of songbirds, armadillos, hummingbirds, deer, turkey, and an occasional rattlesnake, he starts his days at dawn with a meditative soak in a hot tub. Later, after several mugs of a specially concocted brew of roasted coffee beans, Worrell gets down to the serious business of balancing the demands placed on his shoulders by the many galleries, art collectors, and far-flung admirers who have contributed to his success.
In Worrell’s studio, an Andrea Bocelli CD warbles to life on his music system while a fax machine churns away by the front door. As an answering machine fields phone calls, two mischievous cats prowl the studio’s darker reaches in search of field mice and scorpions. Someone in a battered pickup shows up to mow and water the verdant lawns sloping from his studio to the riverbank. Ten minutes later, a dusty rental car pulls into the driveway, and I enter into the Worrell Wonderland.
Pushing a set of jeweler’s glasses onto his forehead, Worrell saunters across the stained concrete floor of his studio while holding the wax model of a cross he’s trying to perfect. “Arch-imedes … I just need to do something about my readings on Archimedes and the brilliance of ancient Greece,” he says as I grasp the still-warm form he’s just handed me.
Sweet Rivers , acrylic, 34 1/2 x 42 1/2.
I shouldn’t have been surprised at this brief greeting. After all, this is the same person who, when asked for a professional resume, faxes a single sheet of paper containing only these words: “1935 to Present: Been a lot of places, seen a lot of things, and done a lot of things. Missed out on a few things, too, but not enough to hurt anything. I am grateful for each and every blessing. My blessings far outweigh my complaints. Bill Worrell.”
To comprehend where Wor-rell stands in the world, it is best to look first at his art and then at how he lives his life. That’s not to say his past—which includes significant achievements such as a master of fine arts degree from North Texas State University and 18 years as a university art professor—deserves to be overlooked. It’s just that, as Worrell himself puts it, “Who cares what lives we were all living in the past?” Still, teaching is not completely in his past, as visitors to his Hill Country compound are encouraged to create everything from pots to jewelry.
Joy , bronze, h18, edition 50.
Like most sculptors, Worrell is a tremendously fit individual who rides a mountain bike and lifts weights for exercise prior to his entering the studio for his daily round of lifting bronze figures for work. Though he’s merrily single, from beneath a full head of curly, salt-and-pepper hair he declares that one of his goals is to meet a woman with whom he will share this country cosmopolitan life.
His art burns its image into a viewer’s eyes, speaking of the intensely personal journey experienced by its creator. Ancient figures, mystical forms, and a deep reverence for man’s place in the cosmos all factor into Worrell’s creative vision. And from here, in the quiet compound he’s dubbed “New Art,” each piece of art is carefully crafted by Worrell’s hands, with nothing leaving until he’s fully expressed the way he feels about the time, place, and emotional power invested in his work.
Quite often, Worrell finds that shapes crafted from bronze, precious metals, or acrylic paints are insufficient vehicles for conveying all of his creative energies. That’s why he’s developed extensive writings that are lettered onto the re-verse sides of his painted canvases or engraved into his bronze sculptures.
Over several years of adding words to his paintings and sculpture as a way to complete their powerful meaning, Worrell became so inspired by the writing process that he began creating essays and narrative poems. Some of his poems are long and run several typed pages; others are more to the point, such as “The Shaman of Gratefulness”:
The Great Spirit
Sends you blessings,
Take great care
Do not worship the blessings
The Great Spirit.
Worrell New Art 1/30/95 6:35 a.m.
Scorpio at Winter zenith, and Venus is high.
The moon will later rise in darkness.
In 1996 he collected many of his poems and matched them with photo-graphs of his paintings and sculptures in a book titled Voices from the Caves—The Shamans Speak. This summer, Worrell released his second book, Journeys Through the Winds of Time [see sidebar].
Along his path from teaching college art classes to building a successful art career, Worrell’s life took an unexpected turn when, in 1979, he stumbled across traces of an ancient culture while on a canoeing trip on the Lower Pecos River. “I took shelter in a cave during an intense thunderstorm,” he recalls, “and it turned out to be a place where paintings thousands of years old had been left on the rock walls.”
Years later, Worrell wrote about the experience: “I go to the river. By the massive boulders and the limestone cliffs, I enter the caves and the rock shelters. There I view their ancient art, and I feel their presence. I hear their voices. They speak to me in a language that some do not hear, that few understand, and of these, few heed. They were my teachers across the bridges of time. They taught me much: to paint, to sculpt, to meditate, to muse. I revere.”
In a very real sense, Worrell’s life as an artist has been a continuing prayer to the powerful impact of that afternoon on the Lower Pecos River. His shamanic images are neither faked nor finessed. Instead, they are contemporary interpretations of an-cient American Indian art and a living record of one artist’s encounter with a spirit force much more powerful than anything he had previously experienced. As if drawn in by a preordained covenant, from that day on Worrell became a present-day artist ambassador from a time and a people forgotten to many.
“I’m not a shaman, nor am I as deeply into sha-manism as some people believe,” he cautions. “But I am an artist, and as an artist my life centers around visual excitement and creative interest. I became fascinated with these pictographs because I felt a kind of goose-bump hush of an ancient presence when I entered those caves. But I’m not trying to come across to people as anything more than a writer, a sculptor, and a painter who spends a lot of time musing about these ancient people and their wonderful art.”
Considering the perspective afforded him from his creative compound in New Art, with its 500-year-old oak trees and stunning views of Texas’ famed Hill Country sunrises and sunsets, there probably isn’t another artist who has forged so close a connection to the past and present places and spirits of the Lower Pecos River culture as has Bill Worrell.
Photos courtesy the artist and Contemporary Southwest Galleries, Santa Fe, NM; Exposures Inter-national, Sedona AZ; Karin Newby Gallery, Tubac, AZ; MacLaren Markowitz Gallery, Boulder, CO; Zapotec Art, Houston, TX; and Charles Miller Custom Knives and Gallery, Burnet, TX.
Featured in December 2000