Gary Niblett | Pride of the West

By Gussie Fauntleroy

Tall Grass and Tall Tales, oil, 24 x 36
Tall Grass and Tall Tales, oil, 24 x 36

Sometimes an image that captures a fleeting moment in time can speak volumes about the past and the future as well. ominous circles, by Gary Niblett, is one of these. The painting depicts two Native American men and several mountain men on horseback, paused in a shallow river crossing where a wooden axle and two wagon wheels are lodged among the rocks. The Native Americans gaze pensively at the strange circular objects. It is the first time they have seen a wagon wheel, the artist explains.

“This is an idea I had for a while. For the Indians, the circle was everything. There was the circle of life. The drum was a circle, the tipi was a circle, the moon was a circle. There was the circle of seasons. But this is an ominous circle because little do these Indians know what peril is going to be brought to them by these circles, these wheels.”

Niblett, 64, speaks thoughtfully, sitting under a white umbrella on the flagstone patio in front of his Santa Fe, NM, home, an expanse of piñon and juniper trees rising to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains a few miles away. Aspen leaves rustle in the warm breeze and flowers and plants of all kinds attest to the gardening skills of Monika, Niblett’s Polish-born wife.

In pressed jeans and cowboy boots, the silver-haired, soft-spoken artist still looks the part of a Cowboy Artist of America, having been the prestigious association’s youngest member when he was invited to join in 1976. Yet Niblett’s approach to painting has shifted a bit over time—especially since January 17, 2004. That was the morning he stood in his studio and picked up a paintbrush, only to have his right shoulder jolted by a flash of sharp pain. He was unable to lift his arm above chest height, and the pain that shot through him was like nothing he’d felt before. He couldn’t paint.

Doctors traced the pain to pinched nerves in Niblett’s neck, no doubt related to 40 years of wielding paintbrushes and using the same repetitive movements day after day. A few months later the pain switched to his other shoulder. After being forced to abandon his easel for many weeks, Niblett gradually worked his way back up to three hours a day, painting as long as he could before pain required him to quit for the day. Finally, after almost three years, he underwent two sets of surgery on his neck. The first brought little relief, but the second, which Niblett calls “miraculous to me,” stopped the pain. “It’s a little stiff,” he says, tilting his head slightly to one side, “but there’s no pain.”

The change was like a rebirth…

Featured in August 2007

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