By Mark Mussari
For Arizona sculptor Bill Nebeker, art is purely three-dimensional. This may seem like a given for an award-winning sculptor, but Nebeker’s path to an illustrious career breaks the familiar mold: Unlike most artists—whether sculptors or painters—Nebeker didn’t spend his childhood drawing, didn’t take art classes in school, and didn’t have any formal training. The only sign of his early interest in art was that as a child, he liked to whittle. “I was always making something,” he recalls, “whittling dogs, horses, making sailing ships.” Unknowingly, he was laying the foundation for his own artistic vision. To this day, Nebeker does no preliminary sketches. “I just sit around and think until I can see the finished image in my mind,” he says.
Images of ranch life, cowboys, Native Americans, and western wildlife come naturally to Nebeker, who was born in Twin Falls, ID. “In Idaho there were farms and horses and cattle,” he says. “But my family moved to Arizona when I was a child because I had asthma.” There Nebeker’s father worked as a cowboy on the Long Meadow Ranch near Prescott. With young Bill seemingly cured of his asthma, the family returned to Idaho, but five years later moved back to Arizona for good. “At that time my father went into other businesses,” he explains.
Although the family was no longer involved in ranching, a part of Nebeker simply could not let go. The boy who whittled cows and horses was nowhere near done with the cowboy life. “After high school, I was drawn back to it,” he says. “I saved money and bought a horse, and I learned how to rope.”
Nebeker tried a year of college at the University of Arizona but left to pursue work as a surveyor of roads and trails for Prescott National Forest. Northern Arizona was now his home. Then, in 1964, a local bank in Prescott featured a one-man show of works by George Phippen, the late western artist and co-founder of the Cowboy Artists of America. Nebeker saw the show and had what Merry, his high-school sweetheart and now wife and business manager, calls “an epiphany.”
The admiration is still evident in his voice when Nebeker talks about Phippen: “He could do anything—oils, sculpture, charcoal drawings. I was fascinated by all of it, but mostly the sculpture.” Nebeker’s three-dimensional sensibilities were charged, and he decided that day to become a sculptor. “I had never thought of myself as an artist,” he muses, “but I just wanted to do it so bad.”
Phippen’s family had a foundry in Skull Valley, AZ, and Nebeker took a job there, determined to learn everything he could. “I would work all day at the foundry learning casting,” he says, “and then I would go home, sit at the kitchen table until 1 or 2 in the morning, and just sculpt.” He still insists that a sculptor “must have a good relationship with a foundry. It’s like a marriage—the quality of your work is only as good as the production of the bronze casting.”
To add to his knowledge, Nebeker amassed art books and started to teach himself human and animal anatomy. “I learned all I could about the skeleton and muscles,” he says. The burgeoning sculptor realized that if the skeletal structure was accurate, everything else would follow.
“I was always drawn to western imagery,” he notes. “And soon I was buying more books to learn everything I could about Native Americans. I love the Plains Indians, especially the Apache. They have always fascinated me.”
Along with Phippen, he cites Charles Russell and Frederic Remington as his main artistic influences. “They could all tell a story,” says Nebeker, whose own narrative sense is evident in his sculptures. He likes to include action in his bronzes, whether it’s a cowboy roping cattle or an Indian warrior galloping into battle. “There’s a lot of attitude in motion,” adds the artist. “Along with composition, a piece should show emotion.”
As a cowboy artist, Nebeker sees a twofold demand in sculpting western subjects: “It not only has to be a good composition, but it also has to be historically accurate. You might have a beautiful composition but no authenticity; a cowboy would recognize what’s wrong.” One of Nebeker’s main goals—and one he has adhered to throughout his career—is “to depict it honestly.”
A slew of awards and other honors earned throughout his long, prolific career attest to Nebeker’s genuine depiction of western life and his strong compositional sense. By 1968, the self-taught sculptor had been inducted into the prestigious Cowboy Artists of America group. Since then he has served as CAA’s president three times. “I always say George Phippen gave me the inspiration to become a sculptor,” he says. “Ironically, he was the group’s first president.” In 1985 Nebeker won a silver medal in sculpture at the group’s annual exhibition and sale, and in 1989 he took best in show along with the Phoenix Art Museum Purchase Award. His bronzes are included in collections at such notable venues as the Rockwell Museum of Western Art in New York and the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis.
In 1974 John Wayne endorsed a portrait statue that Nebeker had made of the famed actor, and it is now displayed in the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. One of the highlights of Nebeker’s career came in 1983 when he was commissioned to create a monumental sculpture for his adopted hometown of Prescott. EARLY PRESCOTT SETTLERS features four figures representing the pioneer spirit of Arizona’s first settlers. Unveiled in 1985, the mammoth 15-foot bronze sits in Memorial Island Park in the center of Prescott.
More recently, Nebeker’s artistic journey came full circle when, in 2007, he shared an exhibit with fellow cowboy artist Robert “Shoofly” Shufelt at the Phippen Museum in Prescott. This year the Arizona Historical Society recognized Nebeker’s contributions to the state by naming him the 2009 Arizona Culture Keeper. The award is bestowed each year on a “pioneer” who has made a positive impact on the state’s history, culture, or economy. The award will be presented to Nebeker in November, honoring him for the importance and historical authenticity of his public monuments.
His process of sculpting is as unique as his career path. He doesn’t use models, except for himself. “If I want to portray a cowboy in a certain position,” he says, “I have Merry take a picture of me in that position, especially to capture folds and wrinkles of clothing.” Structurally, Nebeker begins with an aluminum armature and then adds clay. For anatomical accuracy, he prefers to begin sculpting his figures standing upright, “and then I bend them into the shape I want. I adjust as I go.” Next he creates a silicone rubber mold from which he makes a lost-wax casting to create the final bronze sculpture.
His piece HIGH TAILIN’ IT, showing a cowboy on a horse roping range cattle, illustrates the artist’s finely tuned sense of movement. “Roping cattle is a very dangerous job, and I wanted to create a lot of energy and excitement,” he notes. Nebeker molded each figure—cowboy, horse, cow, and calf—separately and then positioned them on the base. His background in human and animal anatomy informed the sculpture with a natural sense of motion, a quality that characterizes all of his work.
Looking at Nebeker’s bronzes, you realize that they constitute visual paeans to life in the American West. “I consider myself a contemporary realist,” says the artist. “I hope when people look at my work that it gives them some pleasure and elicits some emotion.” In his piece THEM THAT LEAN TO LONESOME, he was inspired by the words of friend and award-winning poet Don Hedgpeth:
It’s all about horses, cattle and men,
‘bout country, the work and the pride,
And places where cowboys who still
lean to lonesome
Can cinch up their saddle and ride.
The sculpture depicts a solitary cowboy atop his horse. The folds of his shirt echo the angle of the horse, heading down a lonely path. The curve of his right arm mirrors the curve of the horse’s right front leg. They are one. “With this piece, I wanted to honor the pride, independence, self-reliance, and character of the American cowboy,” says Nebeker.
Yes, Bill Nebeker is the real deal, a cowboy who many years ago fell in love with Arizona—with its history and ranching life—and who is still whittling out quite a career.
Mountain Spirit Gallery, Prescott, AZ; Trailside Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY; Goodnight Trail Gallery, Mancos, CO; www.billnebeker.com.
Solo show, 40 Years of Sculpting Cowboys & Indians, Prescott Fine Arts, Prescott, AZ, October 5.
Group show, Goodnight Trial Gallery, October 1-4. Cowboy Artists of America Exhibition & Sale, Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, AZ, October 16-November 15. Fall Open House group show, Trailside Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ, October 12-24.
Bill Nebeker Sculpture Showcase, Mountain Spirit Gallery, November 21-December 31.
Featured in October 2009