Greg Kelsey combines his fine-art training with his lifelong ranching experience
By Norman Kolpas
This story was featured in the July 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art July 2015 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
Very early one weekday morning this past May, Greg Kelsey was hard at work following his passion. But he wasn’t in his studio, sculpting one of the realistic, action-packed, or whimsical bronzes of cowboys, cowgirls, Native Americans, horses, or cattle for which the artist has gained great respect from major museums, exhibitions, and collectors alike over the past decade and a half.
Nope. Kelsey had other, more pressing matters to deal with.
“I had to go gather up a rogue longhorn bull,” he states in the matter-of-fact way of a seasoned westerner. He goes on to explain that the animal—one of many animals, both cattle and horses, that he raises on his spread in southwestern Colorado’s La Plata County—had been causing trouble. “Then, I had to come off of a 120-mile drive and change gears to think like an artist again.”
You might be tempted to think that such a push-pull dynamic between fine art and ranching—two worlds that seem so demanding and so different—would detract from finding complete success at either. But, in Kelsey’s case at least, the opposite holds true. In fact, his dual lives on the land and in the studio bring energy to both aspects of his life, as they have for most of his 44 years.
Greg Kelsey grew up in his mother’s farming and ranching family. He was born in the small town of Paul Valley, OK, about an hour south of Oklahoma City, and spent many of his childhood summers on the land his maternal relations worked and around the livestock they raised. “The cowboy life was our at-home life,” he says.
His mom, Diana, however, pursued a dream of earning a master’s degree in art at the University of Houston. Young Greg started school in that Texas city, going on to continue his education in other Texas cities with school systems that had jobs to offer well-trained art teachers like his mother, including Galveston County and finally El Paso, where Kelsey eventually graduated from nearby Clint High School. As much as any of those geographic locations, the museums to which his mother often took him felt like home, too. “I grew up with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and with the Amon Carter Museum,” he says by way of example.
Not surprisingly, he did well in his school art classes, some of which were taught by his mother. But, seeking stability, his goal during his initial college studies at the University of Texas at El Paso and then at East Central University in Ada, OK, was a career in dentistry. Though he gained some inspiration from an area dentist for whom he worked part time and who was an art collector and avid part-time sculptor, Kelsey eventually came to realize that “the office life would be a struggle for me.” And he left college before completing his degree.
Following a life he already knew well, he started rodeoing and working various ranch jobs, eventually winding up living in the Four Corners area. And he felt a personal transformation beginning to take place. “Northern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado just breed inspiration,” he says. “Every day, you’re surrounded by beauty, with four or five different terrains. And people here are making a living off of creativity. Just by happenstance, I found myself around them.”
A couple of years after making the move to Colorado, and with his mother’s wholehearted support, Kelsey enrolled as a fine-art major at Fort Lewis College in Durango. Almost instantly, he fell under the mentorship of a group of working artists who had accepted professorships there. “Not only did I gain technical ability,” he says, “but they also gave me insight into the business side of art.”
In 1997, for his final project at Fort Lewis, he sculpted and cast his first bronze ever: WHEN FELINA WOULD WHIRL, depicting a cowboy lifting and twirling a long-skirted Mexican maiden, inspired by a line from the hit 1959 song “El Paso,” written and recorded by Marty Robbins.
Not feeling the need for a paper diploma, Kelsey then left Fort Lewis College with just 13 course hours remaining to gain his degree. He figured he’d start sculpting while also earning money both by cowboying and by working as an oil-field equipment operator.
Then his life’s course began to change. He and his young bride, Terah, whom he’d met at Fort Lewis and married the year he left college, bought a 35-acre country spread. Witnessing several accidents among his coworkers made him think more than twice about the dangers to which he was subjecting himself, and he committed himself to building a body of sculptures, selling five pieces when he first showed them. From that point on, he’s considered himself a full-time artist, even as he has also continued to live the ranching life.
And still he continued to build his expertise as a sculptor, always refining his approach and technique. In 2000, as an artist-in-residence in Jackson, WY, he was mentored by the great sculptor Edward J. Fraughton, whom Kelsey describes as “a modern, living renaissance genius, I’ll tell you. He taught me how important it is to master thinking about a sculpture all the way around”—that is, making each piece a satisfying, fully realized experience regardless of the angle from which it is viewed. The following year, Kelsey’s sculpture LITTLE BROTHER OF WAR—in which young braves compete at lacrosse, a game invented by Native Americans—received the Artists’ Choice Award at the C.M. Russell Art Auction.
And the kudos have kept on coming, from the likes of the Phippen Museum in Prescott, AZ; the Bosque Arts Center in Clifton, TX; the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis; and the Museum of Western Art in Kerrville, TX. Last year the C.M. Russell Museum inducted Kelsey as one of 22 inaugural members in its prestigious Russell Skull Society of Artists “whose work,” in the museum’s words, “celebrates the themes and tradition of Charles M. Russell and his contemporaries in their portrayal of the Old West.”
Such recognition tells Kelsey that he’s making progress toward an important goal he has set for himself. “I would like to help keep western history alive through my artwork,” he says. “Art provokes thought in a way that nothing else does.”
For a prime example of that particular power, one need look no further than a piece like Kelsey’s SUNDANCE AND THE WILD BUNCH HIT THE UNION PACIFIC, completed for this year’s Russell show and sale. When its figures are viewed from left to right, it presents Ben Kilpatrick, known as “The Tall Texan”; Harry A. Longabaugh, more familiarly remembered as “The Sundance Kid”; and William “News” Carver, as the trio were in the process of robbing the Union Pacific Overland Flyer No. 1 of an estimated $30,000 to $50,000 near Wilcox, WY, early on the morning of June 2, 1899.
“The idea of that piece was a really fun one to do,” says Kelsey, singling out his goal of conceiving precisely “the moment, the action” he wanted to convey, “with the bags full of loot, and the mask half coming off of Sundance there in the middle, using a little more geometry to make him more of the charismatic character.” A true labor of love, he “worked on that piece from start to finish in four weeks, but they were eye-bleeding kind of hours from 4 in the morning until 8 or 10 p.m. or midnight some nights. There were a lot of things I had to wrestle with in there, a lot of legs and a lot of arms going on.” And that doesn’t even begin to touch on the meticulous research he did on every detail, from the outlaws’ clothing to their firearms to the gauge of the railroad tracks they’re charging across.
Such pieces are evidence of Kelsey’s success with historical subjects, but his works inspired by the contemporary West also vividly connect with viewers. Consider his 2014 sculpture SHE HUNG THE MOON, fancifully presenting a lithe cowgirl trustingly standing atop her steadfast horse as she places a crescent moon in the sky. Both his wife, Terah, and their 16-year-old daughter, Lauren, posed for the woman featured in the sculpture. (The Kelseys also have a son, Wilder, now 3 years old.) The work romantically captures, says the artist, “a lot of the empowerment of women” in the American West, both past and present. In such ways, he hopes his work will help establish in the public’s mind “the historical significance of the modern westerner.”
Indeed, that statement perfectly captures the two roles—fine artist and working rancher—that Kelsey so successfully occupies. “I hate to pigeon-hole myself as just western,” he hastens to emphasize, adding that he’d prefer to describe what he does as “the realistic portrayal of physical form and emotional feeling through sculpture in the round.”
But he immediately clarifies that slightly academic-sounding statement with a much more down-to-earth explanation: “I do live the life of a cowboy, and I immerse myself in the subject matter that I live. You’ve got a little different perspective on your art when you have to dehorn your own cattle and rope and doctor your own livestock.”
Featured in the July 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
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all Photos by Mel Schockner
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