By Micahel Grauer
Jack Sorenson gets his artistic inspiration from the canyon landscape he grew up in
“I didn’t have the guts to become an artist, I had the ignorance.” That’s how Jack Sorenson describes the start of his successful 30-year career.
Sorenson grew up on his father’s dude ranch and re-created frontier town on the rim of Palo Duro Canyon. Fifteen miles southeast of Amarillo, the canyon is some of the most stunning and sublime landscape in Texas. Sorenson couldn’t have picked a better place for an aspiring western artist. As a teenager, he trained and broke horses, but he always knew that wasn’t what he wanted to do. Like any artist hoping to do “westerns,” Sorenson knew horses were the key. He would ask cowboy friends of his father’s if he could paint their horses. As a result, the first paintings he sold were what Sorenson calls “horse portraits.” He continued breaking horses after he got married in 1975, but soon he was painting full time. The deal with his wife was simple: “If I can’t make it as an artist within a year, then I get a real job.”
Sorenson persevered in his work and was offered a scholarship to a four-year university but decided it wasn’t teaching the kind of art he wanted to learn. Instead, he made a list of all the artists that he liked and starting calling them, one by one—28 in all. “Most artists are pretty generous about sharing what they know,” he says. Sorenson attended numerous workshops, most led by members of the Cowboy Artists of America.
A dominant influence and mentor was Dord Fitz, the former head of the art department at the University of Kentucky and founder of the Dord Fitz Art Center in Amarillo in the early 1950s. Fitz brought to Amarillo modernist artists such as Elaine de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Louise Nevelson, and Charles Bunnell to give workshops, and he exhibited and promoted their work in the area. “It got to the point that I relied on him to critique everything I did. And every artist needs someone to critique their work,” Sorenson says of Fitz. He worked with Fitz for 15 years.
Despite his efforts, Sorenson would be the first to admit he’s been lucky as well. In order to settle debts, he would give paintings to his father-in-law who, in turn, took them to a local art gallery to be framed. That’s where fate stepped in. “As luck would have it, the gallery had just had a falling out with their top western artist. So they picked me up,” Sorenson says. In May 1975, Webb Galleries in Amarillo hosted his first solo exhibition, and 23 paintings found new homes. With characteristic modesty, Sorenson credits some of his success to the record wheat harvest that year.
These days Sorenson, who still lives in his hometown of Amarillo, paints six days a week, 10 hours a day, and never works on more than one painting at a time. He usually completes and sells a painting a week. The “nice hobby” his relatives warned him about has allowed Sorenson and his wife, Jeanne, to raise five kids with Jeanne staying at home. “I’ve known all my life I was going to be an artist,” he says. “It’s like a preacher being called. It’s what I’m supposed to do.” Still, he says he’s never satisfied with his work. An artist’s knowledge, he explains, is always one step ahead of his or her ability. That’s why he only paints with oils. “You can paint over something 50 times,” he explains.
Attention to detail and strong story lines are two of Sorenson’s trademarks, and his canvases skillfully capture the many faces of the cowboy experience. He says, “I believe great paintings should tell a story—they should involve the viewer. So much of western art today is basically a cowboy or Indian riding through the western landscape. We have the opportunity as artists to do so much more. I hope my paintings give people a connection with the West. If I can trigger some emotion, I’ve succeeded.”
Sorenson is also the author of the book Everything I Know I Learned from My Grandpa: Silver-Haired Wisdom for the Young at Heart. In the book Sorenson depicts a lovable grandfather and his grandchildren “playing about the farm, talking on the porch, and reading by the river in this tribute to a grandfather’s wisdom.” Illustrated homilies such as “you can always come home,” “treat others with respect,” “it is never too late to learn,” “make yourself useful,” and “we never outgrow grandpa’s love” are included.
A student of art history, particularly as it relates to western art, Sorenson knows his subject. In answer to the inevitable question “Remington or Russell?” he replies without missing a beat: “Russell, because there is far more heart in Russell.” However, he allows that “as far as applying paint, Remington was way ahead.” Sorenson also cites H.D. Bugbee, “the Charlie Russell of Texas,” as an influence on his work. More recent western artists that Sorenson places in the front rank include the recently departed Joe Beeler. As a young artist, Sorenson studied Beeler’s drawings on the title pages of Western Horseman magazine and places him in the same category as Russell as those artists who had heart. Another influence was Tom Ryan. As a budding artist going to horse sales in Clovis, NM, Sorenson recalls seeing a calendar on which a Ryan painting was reproduced at a café he and his father frequented. The painting, of Hereford cattle running out of a saloon, had a profound effect on him, as did other cowboy paintings by Ryan.
However, he considers Clifton, TX, artist and former Cowboy Artists of America president Bruce Greene a mentor. Ironically, one of Greene’s favorite places to paint is the JA Ranch in Palo Duro Canyon, where he helps with the spring roundup. Greene says, “The JA trip has been a real inspiration for me each year. I am absolutely sure that this experience has greatly affected my artwork. It seems necessary, to me, in order to depict the contemporary cowboy with accuracy and feeling. My good friend, Red Steagall, calls it ‘getting the dust in your nose.’ For me, that dust makes the difference.”
In May 1913, Taos painter W. Herbert Dunton said this about Taos: “This is the ideal place for me because there are more varieties of atmosphere than I have found in any other place. Up in the high hills one can get the right setting for old trapper pictures. There are several varieties of sage and cactus for backgrounds …and if one wants to paint a Mexican picture he can get a background almost anywhere near Taos that you would swear was a transplanted bit of Old Mexico.”
Come forward in time 93 years and these same words could have come from Jack Sorenson. Before he became a professional artist, Sorenson would tie his paint box on the back of his saddle and ride down into Palo Duro Canyon every Tuesday, his day off. He would mix his colors in the lid and paint on watercolor paper. Today he says, “Everything I know, I learned from Palo Duro Canyon. Every element you need to know for western art is down there. The rugged landscape, the intense colors.”
Jack Sorenson never cleaned the lid in which he mixed his colors (complete with stray horsehairs in the pigment), and he keeps his lucky paint box behind his easel as a reminder of what brung him to the dance. For Sorenson there could have been no better place than in the shadow of historic and awe-inspiring Palo Duro Canyon for a serious western artist to earn his spurs. He has Palo Duro’s dust in his nose.
Sorenson is represented by Joe Wade Fine Art, Santa Fe, NM.
Featured in November 2006