The Escape, bronze, 84 x 80 x 72, edition 12.
By Nancy Ellis
Sitting in Curtis Zabel’s airy, high-ceilinged studio in northwestern Colorado, our conversation about his sculpture is interrupted by the call of a Canada goose overhead, one of a pair that has been nesting near his ranch for the summer. The geese have been sharing this lush spot along the Elk River with a pair of sandhill cranes.
As dusk darkens the sky, Zabel draws my attention out the window. On the lawn near his century-old barn are a doe and her young fawn quietly munching grass alongside The Escape, Zabel’s life-size bronze of two mule deer bucks. “They come here every evening,” he tells me.
These encounters with the natural world typify life on Zabel’s ranch near Steamboat Springs, CO, which he came to as manager more than 30 years ago and purchased in 1979. Although in recent years Zabel and wife Shirley have downsized their livestock herds and leased some of their pasture land to neighboring ranchers, they still keep seven quarter horses and five head of longhorn cattle.
Brothers, bronze, 8 x 4 x 5, edition 30.
In addition to his wildlife bronzes, Zabel [b1935] is well- known for his authentic western sculpture. After three decades of ranching, he has stockpiled a wealth of ideas for new pieces. His favorite scenes come from the daily work of raising cattle. The Big Drift, a recent piece that shows a cowboy urging his horse down a huge snowdrift, is typical of Zabel’s portrayal of “things that really happen on a ranch.”
Storytelling is a common thread in all of the artist’s bronzes. “There’s always interaction among the figures and animals I sculpt,” he says. Undivided Attention, for example, shows a sheep dog at work. “That dog is totally alert,” he says, explaining that he conveys expression in animals through their eyes, the position of their ears and nostrils, and their gestures.
Zabel puts a great deal of thought into his titles, which often contribute to the sense of action. Change of Address [see page 8] depicts a pair of bull elk bolting from a fold. “I always want my sculptures to look alive,” he explains. “I want them to be convincing in their movement.”
Given his long-standing success as a sculptor, it comes as a surprise to discover that Zabel was well into a career as an award-winning painter in the 1960s. “As a kid, I was always drawing and paint-ing, ever since I can remember,” Zabel re-calls. “My mother used to draw a horse for me, and then I would copy it. As I grew up, I was influenced by the cowboy stories of Will James, who was also an illustrator.” Later, Zabel became impressed by Charles Russell’s work and by the European art he was exposed to while stationed in Germany in the Army.
The Big Drift, bronze, 25 x 12 x 22, edition 25.
After returning to Colorado’s Yampa Valley and going to work on the ranch, Zabel continued to paint, winning awards at numerous local and regional shows. Then, in the mid-1960s, a friend sent him some beeswax to mold. Zabel’s first attempt at sculpture started out to be an elk’s head. “Then it became an entire elk, then a hunter being chased by an elk,” he laughs. Since then he’s been hooked on sculpture, and although he continues to paint when he finds time, Zabel is charged by the shape and feel of clay in his hands.
Zabel has been excited and challenged by the growing demand he sees for life-size sculpture. In 1992, he completed his first monumental bronze: Autumn Majesty, a bull elk that measures nearly twice life-size and stands next to a pond in West Lincoln Park in Steam-boat Springs. Zabel has since completed two other public pieces and has several more in the planning stages.
Gazing out Zabel’s studio window at the two deer browsing next to the pair of bronze ones, it’s obvious how accurate Zabel’s work has become. But it’s also evident that this lifelong outdoorsman, with his wealth of experience and love of animals, imbues his sculpture with a true sense of wildness.
Photos courtesy Knox Gallery, Vail, CO; Driscol Gallery, Aspen, CO; Hayden-Hays Gallery, Colorado Springs, CO; Zia Gallery, Salt Lake City, UT; and Two Rivers Gallery, Steamboat Springs, CO
Featured in September 1997