Paul Moore (in cowboy hat) oversees the installation of a section of the land run monument, which is scheduled for completion in 2015
By Gretchen Reynolds
Paul Moore’s methods of teaching himself to sculpt have occasionally made other people nervous. Years ago, when he was working at the famous Shidoni Foundry in Santa Fe, NM, he would secretly observe his boss, Tommy Hicks, memorizing the planes and angles of his face and making mental notes of his expressions and mannerisms. “I was trying to improve my visual retention,” says Moore. “Then, after work, I would go home and sculpt a bust of him. But Tommy didn’t know that. Finally, he asked me point-blank why in the world I was staring at him all the time.” After Moore explained, Hicks was flattered but still became flustered whenever he caught Moore “memorizing” him.
Due to his focused attention to form, and to every other aspect of sculpting, Moore, at 50, has become one of the nation’s most recognized mid-career bronze masters. While particularly well known for his monumental sculptures of seminal moments in western history, Moore is also a sensitive sculptor of life-size busts and small-scale scenes that resonate with emotion. “I want to create flow, movement, and life in every one of my pieces,” he says, “no matter what its size.”
Moore is currently in the midst of sculpting the single largest work ever planned for installation in the United States—a 365-foot-long, one-and-a-half-life-size depiction of the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889, in which settlers raced—on horseback, in wagons, and even on foot—to claim a parcel of the frontier to homestead. Commissioned in 2001 by the state of Oklahoma as part of the 2007 centennial celebration, the OKLAHOMA CENTENNIAL LAND RUN MONUMENT will certainly stand as Moore’s signature piece by the time it’s completed, which is projected to be in 2015.
In the meantime, it has taken over his life. “Sculpting something as enormous as the LAND RUN is like a real job,” Moore says wryly. “It’s hard labor every day, all day.” Which is why, in the evenings, Moore typically spends his down time immersed in his own small-scale—and blessedly quick—work. “To help myself relax from working on monumental sculptures, I sculpt. How crazy is that?” he asks.
Growing up, Moore had little connection to the art world but plenty to western history. His father, a Southern Baptist minister, moved his family from one small town in Oklahoma to another. Moore remembers long hours sunk low in church pews next to his brother, competing to see who could draw most realistically. (Paul usually won.) But that was as close as he came to art instruction. No one in his immediate family had an inclination toward, or aptitude for, art. “My great-grandmother studied at the Art Institute of Chicago,” he says. “But I never knew her.”
His interest in the grand themes of western expansion and culture was more explicable. His family, after all, had participated. “My great-great-grandmother, who was a full member of the Creek tribe, walked the Trail of Tears,” he says. “My great-grandfather was a rider in the Oklahoma Land Run, and my grandfather rode on the Chisholm Trail.” Family stories and legends provided a rich wellspring of source material for Moore when he set out to sculpt. First, though, he had to actually learn how.
“When I started, I honestly didn’t know anything,” he says. Fresh out of high school, he decided to skip college. “No one at universities was teaching figurative sculpture back then, and that was what interested me.” Instead, he went to work at various foundries, being paid to learn the principles of bronze casting. This also made it financially possible for him to experiment with his own work. “Bronze costs a lot,” he says. “Back then, there was no way I could afford to have my own work cast unless I did it myself after hours at the foundry.”
In his free hours, he noodled obsessively with clay and practiced building maquettes (small models) and armatures (wire frameworks). But his trial-and-error approach to becoming a sculptor had its limitations. “I was having trouble getting the clay to adhere to the armature,” he says. “It was pretty frustrating.” So he did what countless artists used to do in the days before master’s programs existed: He called a fellow artist and asked for help. “I telephoned Joe Beeler out of the blue,” he says. Beeler, by then a highly regarded sculptor of western themes, invited the young upstart to his studio in Sedona, AZ, and spent an entire day instructing him in the proper technique for attaching clay to armatures. Beeler shared other secrets of the trade as well, and their session together set the young man on a path toward sculpting mastery. “That one day,” Moore says, “changed my life.”
Featured November 2007
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