Chris Navarro | Rodin of the Rodeo

By Devon Jackson

Chris Navarro works in bronze creating bucking broncs, rodeo cowboys, and images of the West


Chris Navarro went through trial by fire—literally—barely six years into his career as a full-time sculptor. Nearing 40 and already gaining acclaim for his detailed bronze sculptures of Native Americans, wildlife, and, particularly, cowboys and their horses, Navarro decided to sculpt a memorial to Lane Frost, the world champion bull rider who’d died at age 25 after being hit by a bull he’d just dismounted at the Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo in Wyoming.

Perhaps it was because Frost died doing what he loved, or maybe it was the fact that no one had ever created a memorial to a bull rider. Whatever the reason, Navarro, a former bull rider himself, forged ahead. He got the blessings of Frost’s parents, came up with a design, and, wanting to place the memorial in the Frontier Days’ park, contacted the organizing committee to ask if they’d help him raise funds for the project. The committee agreed to build the pedestal, but that was all. Navarro decided to raise the necessary $250,000 himself by selling 250 bronze maquettes of the memorial at $1,000 each. Never mind that he had never raised funds and that he didn’t know any donors; he was committed to the project.

Promising the memorial to Frontier Days by the summer of 1993—just one year from his initial presentation—Navarro got busy. But right when he started the enlarging process, his father suffered a stroke and died three weeks later. Shortly after the funeral, Navarro realized the studio he maintained near his home in Casper, WY, wasn’t big enough for a monumental piece, so he moved to Cody, where he lived in a small apartment above the foundry and worked on the large-scale form. On weekends he drove home to see his wife and children.

By March, the huge clay model was nearly ready. That’s when Navarro woke up to the sting of smoke. Barely escaping the apartment, Navarro emerged unscathed from the fire, but little else in the foundry did. Most of his sculpting tools and all of Frost’s rodeo gear, which Frost’s family had given to Navarro, were destroyed. Worse, the details of his clay model were burned away as well. Nevertheless, Navarro salvaged what he could and finished the entire 15-by-11-foot sculpture, titled CHAMPION LANE FROST, in time for its July 1993 dedication. “It’s still the all-time favorite sculpture that I’ve done,” says Navarro from his winter home in Sedona, AZ, where he and his wife preside over the Navarro Gallery. (They also live part of the year in Casper, WY.) “It meant so much to me—for what it is and what it took to make it.”

Born in Rome, NY, in 1956 to an Air Force father, Navarro had a peripatetic upbringing. The second youngest of four boys and a girl, Navarro had one abiding passion while growing up: horses. He got his first horse at the age of 12 while living in Dayton, OH, when his father was stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Determined to become a horse trainer, Navarro was crushed when the Air Force transferred his father to Spain and the family followed. The only consolation: Spaniards loved horses, too. Soon after relocating to Madrid, Navarro discovered the base’s riding club, the stables, and best of all, a military rodeo at the Rota Naval Station. “I’d always wanted to be a cowboy,” he recalls, “and once I saw these guys riding bulls and broncs, well, you see something you like, you want to do it, too.”


At 16, he entered his first rodeo. Two years later, he won the all-around title in Spain’s military rodeo circuit. Intent both on honoring his parents’ insistence that all their kids attend college and on becoming a full-time rodeo cowboy, Navarro figured attending Casper College in Wyoming would satisfy everyone. (Casper has been a perennial college-rodeo powerhouse since 1967.) Ostensibly majoring in animal technology, he stayed two years before lighting out for the real rodeo circuit. That lasted all of nine months. “I got hurt a lot,” admits Navarro, who over the years has sustained a broken collarbone, three concussions, and a dislocated shoulder. “But if you don’t get hurt, you’re not riding enough.”

Navarro returned to Casper and signed on as a pipe inspector in the oil fields, which was almost as physically demanding as the rodeo. He worked all over the West, from Wyoming and Montana to Colorado and Idaho. Not his life’s dream by a long shot, but Navarro stuck with it because of his responsibilities as a husband and father. “I was always thinking, though,” he recalls, “there’s got to be something better than this.”

Something better came along when Navarro and a friend were out hunting in Wyoming. His friend’s cousin worked as the caretaker for a cabin belonging to sculptor Harry Jackson, who was away. Navarro and his buddy dropped in for a little look-see, and that’s when Navarro came upon Jackson’s TWO CHAMPS, a bronze depicting a cowboy riding a bucking horse. “It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” he remembers. When he asked how much it cost, his friend laughed, as if saying, “Yeah, right. You got $30,000?” Unfazed and most definitely inspired, Navarro thought to himself, “Maybe I could make something like that.”

He then proceeded straight to Goedicke’s Arts & Crafts in Casper, loaded up on everything a novice sculptor would need, piled it into the back of his pickup, drove over to the library, checked out every book he could find on sculpting, and set to work. “I was very focused,” says Navarro. “All I had was a lot of desire.”

Featured in March 2008

Find the rest of this exciting article and more
by subscribing to Southwest Art magazine.