Vic Payne | Capturing the Old West

By Gussie Fauntleroy

Thunder in the Mountains,  bronze, 30 x 31 x 15, edition 50.sculpture, southwest art.
Thunder in the Mountains,  bronze, 30 x 31 x 15, edition 50.

Old West sculptor Vic Payne says he likes to imagine that a child is contemplating one of his bronze sculptures 100 years from now: Like the artist himself, the child has a passion for the West—the Old West, as it was in the 1800s. “Wow!” the boy whispers. “This is what it was really like!”

Payne himself likes to portray what it was really like through intricate detail. In his recently completed bronze scene The Long Trail Home, he included the many trappings that might have been found on a chuck wagon, such as a coiled rope and an ax hanging off the side and coffeepots, cast-iron skillets, and gunnysacks inside. The 9-foot-long piece captures the moment the wagon’s team descends a muddy slope to ford a raging river on the trail home from a cattle drive. A cowboy on horseback pulls at a rope attached to the wagon, helping to pull it through. Ahead, already crossing the river, is Old Blue, a faithful Texas longhorn these cowboys have used to lead cattle drives for years.

Vic Payne. picture, southwest art.
Vic Payne.

The Long Trail Home represents a new dimension in the artist’s quest to accurately portray scenes from the bygone era. Along with masterfully sculpting human and animal figures, Payne has lately been creating painstakingly researched and constructed scale replicas of wagons, canoes, and other modes of locomotion for various scenes to be cast in bronze. The chuck wagon, for example, was built from wood, with every detail of the undercarriage reproduced including wooden springs and brakes. The coffeepot was made from clay, turned on a tiny lathe and then fired to firmness; a miniature metal handle and hinges were added in exact likeness to the real thing. On the wagon are rifles, bedrolls, a wooden bucket, and a tiny lantern hanging on the back looking as if it’s swinging wildly as the wagon slants toward the river.

“There’s not one material in here you can go buy. The wood even had to be bent to make the brakes,” Payne says. “You can sculpt a wagon in clay and get the illusion of a wagon, but with this I can bring a bit more accuracy to it.”

From an Eagle s View, bronze, 24 x 15 x 13, edition 50. sculptre, southwest art.
From an Eagle’s View, bronze, 24 x 15 x 13, edition 50.

In the next 10 years the artist plans to create scenarios involving scale replicas of most of the Wells Fargo stagecoaches. He also intends to sculpt large, wall-relief sculptures and fountains. And he envisions more monumental works similar to the 15-foot-tall piece currently in progress, The Hunter Becomes the Hunted, which dramatizes the instant before an Indian hunter is attacked by a mountain lion who wants the hunter’s deer. No matter the technical challenges that may arise, Payne says two things will remain central to his work: his enjoyment of manipulating clay and the excitement of the story behind the work.

Payne often sculpts in Mountain Trails Gallery in Santa Fe, NM, which he owns. As he works, he graciously answers questions and explains the sculpting process. He points out a work in progress that includes clay figures and a scale replica of a canoe made from leather, with sinew tightly bound around the rim. When cast in bronze, these materials will help produce a more realistic appearance than could be accomplished in clay, he says.

The sculpture tells the story of John Colter’s death-defying encounter with Blackfoot Indians after he and another mountain man returned from accompanying Lewis and Clark to the Pacific. The story involves suspense, drama, and almost superhuman bravery and endurance. Payne leans in as he relates the tale, his eyes intent under his black cowboy hat. In a leather vest, jeans, silver belt buckle, and boots, he could be a cowpuncher himself.

“I love the Old West. I dream it, I live it in my mind,” he says. “I wish I’d been living then. You know, there’s this restless kind of spirit. You want to see what it was really like. Definitely the easiest way to see it is to make it.”

The Long Trail Home, bronze, 9 feet long. sculpture, southwest art.
The Long Trail Home, bronze, 9 feet long.

By today’s standards, Payne has lived a sort of cowboy life himself. When he was 10 his family moved from Dallas to a ranch in Lincoln County, NM, where his father—the artist Ken Payne—began painting full time after leaving a career as an airline and crop-dusting pilot. Young Vic thought he’d died and gone to heaven. “All of a sudden we had horses and cows. We were 40 miles from anyone. Those were the fondest days of my life—no troubles in life,” Payne recalls. “My dad was painting. He had this little adobe studio, and he had his library in there; I’d go in there and read Will James’ book and look at pictures of paintings by Charlie Russell and Frederic Remington. We didn’t have a TV; there wasn’t much else to do.”

Not long before Payne left home his father began sculpting western figures to be cast in bronze. That inspired Payne to try his own hand at sculpture. When he was 19 and driving a cement truck in southeastern New Mexico, his boss let him sculpt wax models while waiting in the truck between loads. It was 110 degrees in the shade, so the wax was hot and easy to work. He had his first piece cast in bronze, and his boss bought it right away for $1,500 the most money Payne had seen in his life, he says. Within three years he had moved to a ranch in the hills near Cloudcroft, NM, and started sculpting full time.

“I was really lucky,” he says. “There were so many great people down in the oil fields who would look at my work and buy it. They liked it, but I think they were being kind. I’ve got to give those people credit for getting my career started. Some of those guys have bought one of every piece I’ve ever made,” Payne says. “Also, my mom owned a foundry back then. She did a lot of the foundry work and helped me cast some of my first pieces. I never could have done it without her.”

Today the artist lives with his wife and four children on a 40-acre southern Colorado ranch, where his studio sits beside the Navajo River and his pride is a steer-roping arena he designed with his 18-year-old son, Dusty. The two compete together in team-roping events at rodeos throughout the West. This past spring they each won a saddle at a rodeo in Farmington, NM.

Though Payne does some sculpting in the studio at his ranch, much of his work is done in front of an appreciative audience at his Santa Fe gallery. Following in his father’s footsteps in another way as well, he learned to pilot airplanes when he was 16 and now flies his own small plane between his Colorado home and Mountain Trails Gallery locations in Santa Fe; Sedona, AZ; Park City, UT; and Jackson, WY.

At this point in his career, virtually everything Payne creates is sold in limited editions before it’s cast. He jokes that this is because he’s so slow. Indeed, with the amount of research and detail involved in works such as The Long Trail Home, the sculpting process can take as long as two years and that’s after he’s been thinking about a piece for about five years before starting it. Meanwhile, collectors and gallery visitors watch him work and become more excited about each piece as it gradually takes shape.

Payne, too, remains excited by his work and its challenges. A recent vacation in Spain and Portugal his first European trip provided inspiration on many levels. “It’s real hard to get this chassis and the springs and stuff cast in bronze,” he says, looking again at the chuck wagon. “But when I went to Europe and saw the kind of detail those guys over there carved in stone well, I just stood there stunned and thought, ‘We should be able to do this.’”

Photos courtesy the artist and Mountain  Trails Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Sedona, AZ; Park City, UT; and Jackson, WY

Featured in July 2000