Robert Summers | Sculpting the Texas Trail

By Richard Maturi

Tejas Vaquero, bronze, H12 x 141⁄2 x 51⁄2., edition 100., sculpture, southwest art.
Tejas Vaquero, bronze, H12 x 141⁄2 x 51⁄2., edition 100.

Where else but Texas would a group of developers envision commissioning the world’s largest bronze monument? What began as an ambitious idea in the early 1990s is now becoming a Texas-size sculpture in downtown Dallas. Comprising three cowboys—a trail boss, cutter, and vaquero—on a 19th-century cattle drive, Texas Trail by Robert Summers rounds up viewers and transports them back to the state’s early days.

When the dust settles and all the figures are completed, Texas Trail will include the three cowboys on horseback as well as 70 Texas longhorns in a 4.2-acre re-creation of Texas history. The riders each stand more than 10 feet tall, while the steers measure 6 feet 6 inches at the shoulders and about 6 feet from horn to horn, their hefty build weighing in at some 1,200 pounds. The larger-than-life-size sculpture is located next to the historic Pioneer Cemetery at the gateway to the Dallas Convention Center. To date, 40 longhorns are in place, and 14 more will be installed by the end of the year.

Texas Trail., sculpture, southwest art.
Texas Trail.

The Dallas Parks and Trees Foundation, which planned the project under the leadership

of developer Trammel Crow, commissioned Summers to begin the project in 1992. The artist, who lives in Glen Rose, TX, was one of more than 100 from around the world whom the foundation considered for Texas Trail. At the final stage of the selection process, the committee visited Houston’s Astrodome/Astrohall Complex to see Summers’ Texas Legacy, a three-quarter-life-size sculpture of a trail drive. Paula Peters, executive director of the foundation, says that Summers was chosen because there was a sense of life, movement, and vitality in his sculpture. “Summers captured the energy of the animals and cowboys,” she says. “You can almost see the muscles working in the horse’s shoulders.”

Last Cup, oil, 24 x 36. painting, southwest art.
Last Cup, oil, 24 x 36.

Summers [b 1940] worked for two and a half years on his part of the project. Because of its enormous size, the sculpture required a great deal of planning, not to mention hard work. Summers designed 10 different steer bodies and then fashioned the rest of them by combining parts of the original 10, making adjustments for different stances and strides. The steer sculptures have all been produced by Eagle Bronze Foundry in Lander, WY.

Placing a public work of art often ignites controversy, and Texas Trail was no exception. Some critics said the subject matter didn’t fit Dallas’ cosmopolitan image, while others suggested that the sculpture wasn’t really fine art. But Peters says that the piece was intended to provide visitors with a depiction of a part of the city’s history in an accessible manner. “It’s meant to be fun and informative—art you can touch and sit on,” she says.

Although Texas Trail has drawn attention to Summers’ sculpture, he is a respected painter as well. He has been painting for as long as he can remember. After taking basic art lessons from ages 8 to 11, Summers has studied and experimented on his own ever since.

Summers’ interest in western images goes back almost as far as his interest in art. “My father was a Remington buff, and it rubbed off on me,” he says. “My father also owned the local theater, so I grew up watching John Wayne and the western movies that were popular during that era. Plus, many of my relatives were Texas pioneers and cowboys, and my grandmother used to tell their stories about taming the West.”

Summers began to get serious about art in his early twenties, quitting his job with the Texas Highway Department and hitting the art circuit full time. Within six months, however, he realized that he wasn’t going to make ends meet, so he took a job at a Gen-eral Dynamic aircraft manufacturing plant and continued to work on his art at night. After two years of such double duty, a patron convinced Summers to again devote full attention to his art career. The patron loaned him enough money to live on and accepted paintings as repayment. Before long, Summers was represented by a few galleries and his career was on track.

Despite a career of painting and sculpting primarily western images, Summers doesn’t consider himself a western artist. “I don’t like labels,” he says. “If you designate someone a western artist, you imply that he or she can’t do anything else.” Another term he disdains is self-taught, because he believes that attending art school is not what makes a good artist. “You can learn fundamentals at art school, of course, but that’s just a start,” Summers says. “Good artists never stop studying—viewing master works in museums, applying general lessons from life to their work. It’s also important to get critiques from other artists, to talk to
people whose work you admire.”

One early American artist whose teachings Summers has studied over the years and taken to heart is Howard Pyle, an illustrator, author, and instructor to some of the country’s best artists. “Pyle taught that you have to reach into the depths of your subject and develop a kinship with it. If it’s a person, you have to project yourself into that person’s life and feel their feelings. If it’s an object, a shoe for example, you have to recognize that it’s a certain person’s shoe, and that it has taken on the characteristics of that person.” Pyle described such attention to detail in one of his own paintings of British troops on the attack: “You can smell the gunpowder in that painting.”

Summers’ own attention to detail involves researching his subjects to try to understand their emotions. When he set out to create a portrait of the Buffalo Soldiers titled Fort Davis, for example, he traveled to the Fort Davis Museum in West Texas to do research. Fort Davis was one of the first posts in the West where African-American soldiers were stationed. Summers’ painting commemorates the role of the Buffalo Soldiers in patrolling the southwestern frontier. Summers not only studied the history of the Buffalo Soldiers but also rode where they had ridden and tried to view the terrain through their eyes. “I gained important insights about these people from this first-hand experience,” he says. “I acquired a feel for the beauty of the land and the hardships and dangers these soldiers endured.”

Of his western paintings and sculpture, Summers says, “I’ve never been a cowboy, but that doesn’t mean I can’t portray the cowboy’s emotions.” He wants viewers not only to smell the leather and feel the dirt but also to understand the feelings behind the subject—the pain or gladness, sorrow or elation. “It’s the emotional impact that’s important,” he says. “It’s the sparkle and the soul that make good art.”

When Texas Trail is complete, with all 70 bronze steers being herded across Pioneer Plaza, Summers believes viewers will be able to experience the dust and heat along with the energy and emotion of a cattle drive. He adds, “The monument gives people an opportunity to step away from the hustle and bustle of contemporary life and involve themselves for a moment in this state’s history.”

Photos courtesy the artist and Altermann & Morris Galleries, Dallas, TX, and Whistle Pik Gallery, Fredericksburg, TX.

Featured in July 1998