By Norman Kolpas
Think for a moment about the similes we sometimes choose to describe the strength and grit of horses. We compare their muscles to steel or imagine their sinews tensed and torqued like wire cables.
Now, consider how we turn such comparisons around, measuring our machines by equine standards. Our cars surge with “horsepower.” Railroad locomotives are “iron horses.”
You can see the pattern. It’s been impressed upon our human psyches over millennia of interaction with animals of the genus Equus. Horses often seem like divine works of sculpture, as if made of the strongest metal turned fluid and then miraculously sprung to life.
Those links we imagine between horse, metal, and machine may explain why Dixie Jewett’s equine sculptures seem so perfectly right, despite how undeniably eclectic and strange their construction may appear on close inspection. A single glimpse of one of her usually life-sized steeds, composed of materials ranging from auto parts and farm equipment to baling wire, railroad spikes, and broken tools, can leave the impression that the artist has somehow snatched her work from the depths of our collective subconscious.
Held together with sturdy steel frameworks and assembled with the painstaking detail of intricate three-dimensional puzzles, such artworks express a mastery that belies the mere 14 years Jewett has been producing them. Yet, they undeniably result from a lifetime that’s as multifaceted as the materials the 64-year-old artist employs.
Jewett grew up in rural Montana. Her folks, Orville and Josephine Jewett, raised cows and crops of hay and wheat near tiny Willow Creek, close to the Canadian border. “I grew up familiar with that landscape, and with the horses and the farm machinery,” she recalls. “I especially remember harvesting wheat with the old horse-drawn thrashing machine and chucking it up into bundles.”
At home and in school, young Dixie always shone as an artist, but her talent “was just something that was there, that I did, that I was.” Most of her early drawing dexterity was honed copying the calendar reproductions of western scenes by the likes of Charlie Russell or detailed images of birds from a book of Audubon illustrations her parents had. “I just used school stuff, tablets and pencils and crayons and one of those watercolor sets with the little dried squares of paint in the little tin.”
When she was 12, her parents split and she and her siblings moved with their mom 350 miles south to the restored ghost town of Virginia City, between Bozeman and Butte. There, she gained more knowledge by hanging out in the shack of an old cowboy artist who specialized in souvenir pen-and-ink drawings. “I love pen and ink to this day,” she says.
Soon, the teenager’s talent led to the beginnings of a livelihood based on art. “In high school,” she says, “I was painting signs for the fronts of stores and silkscreening posters for local theaters.”
But Jewett had a wanderlust, bred perhaps by the wide-open spaces in which she’d been raised. She hit the road and, in her early twenties, wound up in Alaska. “Finally,” she recalls, “I ran out of money in Ketchikan, so I got a job there driving a taxi.”
The most sought-after fares, she learned, took tourists down to the docks to catch seaplane air taxis, a common mode of transportation among the narrows and inlets of the state’s rugged coastline. Jewett showed unusual courtesy to her fares; “I’d carry people’s luggage down the stairs to the dock instead of leaving them at the curb like the other drivers.” Soon, she says, the owner of one air taxi service was calling up the dispatcher and demanding, “Send that dame out.”
It was a short step from there to Jewett learning to fly those seaplanes and other small aircraft herself, spending almost a decade and a half working in Alaska as a pilot. Her childhood familiarity with machinery led her, as well, to start rebuilding old aircraft, from souping up their engines to modifying their bodies and restoring their fabric skins, a pastime she continues to this day.
An older pastime also endured. “In the evenings,” she says, “I would draw in pen and ink. I even created and published a coloring book of airplanes, from the earliest aircraft through jetliners.” Once, when she was sidelined from flying for a couple of months, she also dabbled in oils, painting Alaskan scenes that sold well in a show she had in the lobby of a local bank.
One day in the early 1980s, while she was taking off from Cordova airport on the Orca Inlet, she had an epiphany. “Just off the end of the runway, I saw a guy with his easel set up, painting. That was a pivotal moment. I thought, I’ve got to get back to art. I’ve been sidetracked for too long.”
She returned to Montana, buying a house in Bozeman, but the career transition proved difficult at first. “I just didn’t know how to go about making a living as an artist,” she says. A flying trip to France, and visits to some of its great museums, brought her fresh resolve. Back home again, she tried her hand at sculpting bronzes and crafting raku-style pottery figures of “fat little horses in bright colors.” But she found bronze didn’t suit her style, and she was frustrated by the size limitations of the kiln and the fragility of raku. “I just had to find a way to do something bigger that wouldn’t break,” she remembers thinking.
Inspiration finally came after her move to western Oregon in the mid-1990s. At Lawrence Gallery there, she saw the works of sculptor John Richen, who fabricates large stainless steel and bronze sculptures combining vivid realism with bold elements of abstraction. “I can’t believe there’s a person alive who wouldn’t fall in love with his work,” Jewett says. She also renewed her admiration for the boldly scaled, welded-metal sculptures of Jim Dolan, known for his larger-than-life public works of natural subjects ranging from a whitetail buck to a flight of Canada geese.
Gradually, it dawned on Jewett that “you could just build up metal sculptures, you didn’t needs molds. And you could make horses that look like horses,” she says. “So I got a welder and started welding up what I had around.”
The bits and pieces of metal in her workshop, combined with fresh finds from garage sales, became her first huge horse, which she decided to submit to the annual Sculpture in the Park show held the second week of August in Loveland, CO. Happy with the results but unsure of how the piece might be received, she secured it upright to a flatbed trailer and headed to Colorado. What happened at her first stop, when she pulled into a gas station in the Columbia River Gorge, was a sign of things to come.
“Jeez,” she still recalls with a hushed sense of wonder. “Here come all these cars over, and everyone was flocking around the horse, going nuts. I’d done it sort of as a lark, and suddenly I thought, I’ve got something going there.”
People respond to her work, Jewett feels, not only because the sculptures look so amazingly lifelike and animated, but also because “they can identify with all the little bits. They’ve got stuff like that at home.” She vividly remembers the reactions of one couple. “The wife was amazed by how realistic and alive the horse looked. Meanwhile, her husband was up close to it and said, ‘Wow! A ’57 Chevy headlight!’”
Almost a decade and a half later, Jewett remains dedicated to the artistic path she’d sought for so long. She now makes her home in the town of Dayton, about 50 miles southwest of Portland, on a 34-acre Christmas-tree farm that she’s considering transforming into a vineyard and winery. She works in a 60-by-100-foot barn that offers ample room for the “tons and tons of stuff” she now routinely picks up from scrap yards and farm auctions. “I plan projects for just about every load I get,” she says.
Each project takes some three months to realize, “and sometimes a little longer if the parts are small.” She usually starts by making a soapstone sketch on the cement floor. That guides her in welding steel tubing to create the steed’s interior. “And then I’ve got some fairly stiff wire to go around the outline,” she explains.
Finally, sometimes welding directly onto the frame or, when the material won’t take a weld, fitting it with a collar or drilling a hole for a weldable pin, she begins attaching things. When she needs reference for musculature, she’ll tie one of her horses outside. The entire process, she explains, is “a little bit planned, a little bit intuitive. I start at the nose and just work aft.” She laughs at realizing she’s used an aviation term. “Well, I guess it is pretty much like building airplanes. You have this frame, and then it’s fleshed out.”
Fleshed out is putting it mildly. Through Jewett’s art, inert pieces of metal somehow feel as if they pulse with life—humankind’s time-honored metaphors for the horse are made wondrously real.
Turquoise Tortoise Gallery, Sedona, AZ; Lanning Gallery, Sedona, AZ.
Solo show, Turquoise Tortoise Gallery and Lanning Gallery, June 5-30.
Featured in May 2009