Creator of Honest Western Art
Interview by Ray Newton
Having lived in Prescott for over 65 years makes creating authentic Western art as much a part of Bill Nebeker’s persona as watching the sunrise over Mingus Mountain to the east. He confesses that his passion for honest Western art is exceeded only by his love for his wife Merry. In June they will have been married for 55 years. They proudly boast of their three children — two daughters and a son — and seven grandchildren.
Now widely recognized as one of the nation’s most prominent sculptors and artists of cowboys and horses, Nebeker credits his family background of growing up on his family’s Idaho farm and the Long Meadow Ranch just outside Prescott as a part of a working ranch family with giving his artwork the true flavor of the Old West.
Nebeker is first to admit success as an artist and sculptor was not immediate or overnight. He is candid that the first few years of his career were “snug and austere.” As a youngster in the 1960s, he was familiar with the artwork of famed sculptor George Phippen. Phippen died in 1966 before Nebeker had the chance to meet him, but that didn’t stop the aspiring artist from studying and admiring the award-winning work of the founding president of the Cowboy Artists of America.
In fact, Nebeker shifted careers from being a saddle maker and leather craftsman to working at the foundry Phippen and his family had founded in Skull Valley. His reason — to learn as much as he could about sculpting and bronze casting from Phippen’s wife and sons. For eight years, Bill and Merry lived in Skull Valley. Over the years since, Merry has served as his business manager, contract negotiator, image editor and tour arranger — and best friend.
In that same timeframe of the late 1960s and early ‘70s, friends and supporters of the late Phippen proposed the plan to build a museum in Prescott to house his works and those of other notable Western artists. Now an internationally known museum, it is located at 4701 Highway 89 North and is home for some of the best Western art even produced. It includes several pieces created by Nebeker.
It was in 1978 that Nebeker was accepted into the Cowboy Artists of America. He says he has never been more humbled than to serve as president of that organization for four terms.
A major turning point in Nebeker’s career was when he created a portrait statue of actor John Wayne. Wayne heard of the statue and invited the Nebekers to meet him, where Bill and Merry presented Wayne with that statue. Duke’s partners purchased three more. The visibility that occurred from that statue resulted in Nebeker’s stature in the Western art collectors’ world growing beyond his wildest expectations.
Nebeker’s work is in collections at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City; Old West Museum, Cheyenne, Wyoming, Museum of Western Art in Kerrville, Texas; Palm Springs Art Museum in California, Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg and Phoenix Art Museum. Many prestigious corporate and private collections in America and some in Europe also have his work.
He has been featured in stories in major circulation publications across America.
For more information about Nebeker and his career, visit www.billnebeker.com
Prescott LIVING: Bill, for decades, you’ve had an international reputation as an exceptional Western artist. When did your interest begin in sculpting and in artistic endeavors?
Bill Nebeker: It has been lifelong. The whole time I grew up as a kid, I always had the ability to whittle horses and dogs. I was always making things. But I never knew anything about art formally. I couldn’t have told you what art was.
After we moved to Prescott, I went to school with Ernie and Loren Phippen, sons of the famous George Phippen. He was one of the early Western artists in our area. I knew that he always was featured on covers of Western Horseman magazines — his paintings, his bronze sculptures. I was fascinated with that. But I’d never really seen original art firsthand.
When I’d graduated from high school, I attended the University of Arizona. I spent a semester up at Arizona State College — now Northern Arizona University — up in Flagstaff. But I didn’t know what I wanted to do so I just came home and went to work. I did a lot of leather work —made a saddle, a lot of chaps and bridles for friends. I thought of becoming a saddle maker.
My future wife, Merry, and I had a date one night. My mom and dad said, “Hey, can you go with us? George Phippen’s having a one-man art show downtown at a local bank.” We did. I walked in and saw bronze sculptures, paintings and drawings. I was absolutely fascinated. I desperately wanted to try to do something like that. That inspired me. I went to the local hobby shop and bought the wrong kind of clay. I was trying to sculpt and (laughs) many mistakes later. …
Mr. Phippen passed away before I got to meet him. But his family had started this little bronze foundry named Bear Paw Bronze in Skull Valley. During that time, bronze foundries had almost become non-existent for fine art. Most foundries were making car parts and other stuff. For the Phippens to find a foundry that did fine art castings was almost impossible. That’s why they started their own
We made an appointment. I went to Skull Valley to visit Mrs. Phippen. She was very kind and never told me how bad my initial pieces were. (laughs) She offered to let me work with Ernie and learn the bronze casting business. It was the greatest invitation I’d ever had. I gave up a $2 an hour job with the U.S. Forest Service. I went to work for them for $1.50 an hour.
Merry and I moved to Skull Valley and lived in a little ranch house. I would work in the foundry all day. Mrs. Phippen gave me access to George’s studio. I was able to see publications about human anatomy and animal anatomy. I’d go to the local little art shop in town and order these magazines. I would go home and read and study them. Of course, I had access to seeing horses and cattle all the time. For years, I had roped horses, helped with cowboy work. So, I started studying anatomy.
Prescott LIVING: How old were you?
Bill Nebeker: Maybe 30. I started in 1967. We had just married. Merry would encourage me. I would go home and sculpt and redo different objects. I finally made a piece with a cowboy and horse. Ernie made me make three of them before he would cast one. And the third one was better than the other two. We got one cast and we put it in the Cobweb Hall on Whiskey Row. Somebody from Phoenix bought it. I used that money and cast another one. Somebody else saw that and bought it.
By the end of 10 years, I was making more money one year selling art part-time than I did working the whole year for wages. I thought, ‘Gosh, I better try this.’
Fortunately, all these other artists were looking for a foundry to get their work cast in. So, I was able to meet Joe Beeler, Bill Owen, Frank Polk, and Cynthia Rigden and several others.
I think it was 1976 I quit the foundry business and went into my art full-time. Two years later I was accepted into Cowboy Artists of America in 1978. What a thrill. George Phippen, the first founding president of that group, was the man whose work inspired me to be an artist. And now, I was in the organization that he founded. Since that time, I’ve been honored to be the president four times.
Prescott LIVING: Who’ve been your heroes, your icons?
Bill Nebeker: Mostly it was George Phippen. But also Charlie Russell and, of course, Frederick Remington. I also really liked Solon Borglum because he did the Bucky O’Neill statue that’s in the Courthouse Square. I read a book about his brother Gutzon, who created Mount Rushmore.
But really, I was almost totally self-taught. At that time, there really wasn’t anywhere to go for instruction because most universities were not interested in realism. In the late ‘60s, early ‘70s it was all cubism, modernistic art. You tried realism, they just looked at you like you were silly.
For me, I relied on trial and error and reading. I found out it’s more than just anatomy. You’ve got to have some sense of composition. I tell people it’s like somebody who has musical ability. They’re driven to play the piano or play violin or play an instrument. That’s kinda the way art is — you’re driven. But you want to study the best.
Prescott LIVING: You’re a realist. You’re not expressionist or impressionist.
Bill Nebeker: Right. I think I have a reputation that people know that they’re getting a quality piece — it represents the cowboy of this era, a way of life. If you look at a Charlie Russell piece, that is exactly what cattle and cowboys and Native Americans looked like in that era.
What makes Western art different from just art, in general? The important part of art is what it conveys, what message it tells you. But one thing that’s added in Western art — it is honest and realistic. Western art is portraying a way of life that people take seriously. If you don’t portray it correctly, it irritates those who do know what was real. For example, you can create a great image of a horse and a cowboy, but it may be totally inaccurate. It might still be a neat-looking piece of art, composition-wise. But to a cowboy or ranch people, they can view it and say, “Well, that’s terrible because it’s not true.”
Nothing similar to Western art occurred except in America. The cowboy way of life, the big cattle herds and the drives, that only lasted 40 years. From the end of the Civil War until the end of the trail drives it was, you know, a short period of time. But what a great impact it had on American history.
Prescott LIVING: What is it that makes bronze work difficult?
Bill Nebeker: Bronze work is difficult because it’s 90% manual labor. You are taking somebody’s piece of work, chop it all up, make molds of it, making waxes, touch it up, cast it in metal, weld everything back together. You grind all the seams and imperfections down. When you look at that bronze, it looks just exactly like the artist’s clay. That is art unto itself. To be a good bronze caster, you must be an artist.
Every piece of art creates a specific different problem. You can’t set up an assembly line. You just have to go through this manual process of knowing how to cut the clay, make molds of legs and arms and a mold of the head.
Prescott LIVING: How big were your first pieces?
Bill Nebeker: Table size — probably 20 inches by 12 or 13 inches high? You graduate to the larger pieces with experience.
Prescott LIVING: When did you create a large sculpture?
Bill Nebeker: My very first big bronze was a doozy. It was Prescott Early Settlers in 1983. That’s on the entrance to downtown, in the pocket park at the intersection of Sheldon and Gurley on the east side of Prescott.
I did the small bronze to raise money to pay for a casting of the big one at a foundry in Loveland, Colorado. No foundry in Prescott was big enough. I went to Loveland the first of January. I never got home until Easter. I was working on four 9-foot figures.
It was commissioned by the Prescott Area Art Trust. They decided Prescott needed to have more art like our Bucky O’Neill statue.
The Prescott Area Art Trust sponsored a contest for all artists in Yavapai County. They said, “Present us a piece with people that you feel had the most importance in the development of Prescott, Arizona.”
The reason the mountain men brought an expedition in was they found gold in Lynx Creek. So the miners came first. They needed supplies so they shipped in freighters from California. They needed protection so the military built Fort Whipple with a contingent of cavalry. Then came the ranchers and the pioneer woman — the schoolteacher and mother. For me, those were the four important people for the development of Prescott.
I won the contest. And then I thought, now what am I going to do?
Prescott LIVING: What was that first commission worth?
Bill Nebeker: At that time — early ‘80s — I won a specific amount of money, $10,000. For as much work as I had to do, that wasn’t very much. But I got to do something for my hometown. And I had other supporters.
We got that whole thing cast for $58,000. That is amazing because that piece today would cost you more than $200,000.
Prescott LIVING: What prompted you to follow a Western and Southwestern theme?
Bill Nebeker: I was always raised with animals in the country. I always had a baby calf to raise. Took care of it, cleaned its stall, fed it. When it got old enough, my parents would sell it. I didn’t know it, but they put that money in a savings account for me.
When I got old enough and needed to buy a car, I had enough money to make a down payment on a car and always had to make my own payments.
When I went to U of A, I missed the country thing, so I bought a cowboy hat, boots and stuff. I bought a horse. I kept him in a stall out at Thunder Ridge facility. I’d ride him on weekends. When I went to NAU, they had a rodeo group, so I got on the rodeo club.
Prescott LIVING: What prompted the John Wayne statue? It is one of the better-known sculptures.
Bill Nebeker: That was kind of a turning point in my career. I think this was in ‘72. I always admired the man. I loved his movies. “The Searchers,” to me, was an epic western story.
At the end of that film he’s silhouetted in that doorway, with wind blowing his hat up. He’s holding his arm, and turns on his heel, walks off into the dusk.
That scene in that doorway just fascinated me. I thought, “I’m just going to make a tribute piece to John Wayne — that scene from “The Searchers.” I never thought I’d go anywhere with it or do anything. I did it from memory, the best I could. I had pictures to look at, so I tried to capture his face, his gear and his stuff.
My wife Merry’s father was very involved in education in Arizona. One time, he called me and wanted to know what I was making at the time. And I said, “Well, I just did a tribute piece to John Wayne.” A few weeks went by. He called again. He said, “You won’t believe this.” He was at one of his school board meetings, bragging about his son-in-law making a statue of John Wayne. A guy popped up and said, “Well, I’m one of John Wayne’s business partners. I want to see it. John Wayne’s coming to town. He wants to see it, too.”
I took the sculpture down there and gave it to my father-in-law. Then I sat around… (laughs)… waiting. “Is he going to hate it? Is he going to like it?”
Then I thought, maybe I don’t have the right to do this. So I asked a lawyer friend. He said movie stars make their living from being public. They were public domain then. So, I didn’t have to have his permission. Now, you do.
The next thing I hear — “John Wayne wants to meet you. He’s going to be in Stanfield (a small town west of Casa Grande where he co-owned a ranch) in two weeks.” The secretary told us, “And bring some other pieces of your work. He wants to see them.”
So, here we are, a young married couple. We had a pickup truck with a camper shell on it. We loaded some bronzes in the back. We go down. We sat on the tailgate and talked to John Wayne. He was in costume because he had done a firearm safety class for youth for Arizona Game and Fish.
He was a gracious, gracious individual. Very, very nice. Large man too! You can’t even see my hand! He’s like a ham wrapped around my hand!
He ended up buying a couple of my bronzes. One was a cowboy and a young horse with the horse jumping and the guy is hanging on. Years later, just before Wayne passed away, he had an interview with Barbara Walters at his home in Newport Beach. The camera’s panning between him sitting in a chair and her sitting in a chair. All of a sudden, Merry and I look (grinning). My bucking horse bronze is sitting on the table.
Prescott LIVING: How do you select the firms that cast your work?
Bill Nebeker: I usually look for the foundry that gives you the best quality for the money. Now, my little foundry, Thumb Butte Bronze, because it’s smaller, I guess, they’re a little higher-priced than some of the bigger places … but the quality of the castings is outstanding. And your pieces are only as good as the piece you get from the foundry.
Prescott LIVING: How many galleries and museums are you in? Do you have any idea?
Merry Nebeker: (After Bill turns to her.) He’s in four galleries right now, and he’s in museum collections — probably at least a dozen. His main gallery is in Jackson Hole. His work is in museums across America.
Prescott LIVING: Bill, any idea how many pieces you’ve created during your career?
Bill Nebeker: Merry knows.
Merry Nebeker: Three hundred. No, about 320, the last time I counted. That’s individual sculptures.
Prescott LIVING: What stimulates your imagination into conceiving some of this artwork? For example, “If Horses Could Talk.” That’s a hell of a creative piece.
Bill Nebeker: I thought about that piece for a long time. If you’ve ever been hunting in your life, you’re out in the woods, you’re looking across the little canyon over at some guy walking down the ridge with a gun over his shoulder. And laying under a tree right next to him is a big old buck. That guy has not a clue it’s there. There’s probably the same thing happening right underneath you.
And I thought that would make such a neat sculpture. I thought about it off and on for two or three years. I thought the only possible way I can do it is it has to be a big rock with an undercut. The cowboy and the horse will be up on this rock looking for a deer. And when I first created the piece, the deer was laying down. He wasn’t sneaking away. Because deer will do that, especially big bucks. They’re not dumb at all.
But it lacked something. I left it alone for a while. Then I was looking through an old hunting magazine. There was a little photo in the corner of a page of this big deer sneaking. It hit me — oh my word, that’s what I got to do.
It was the most popular piece I ever did. I sold a whole edition in one night. Twenty-five castings I sold in an hour. The reason is because of people who hunted. They laughed because “That’s happened to me, or I saw that happen to somebody.” People who didn’t care about hunting. They liked it because the deer was getting away.
Prescott LIVING: You’re on the road quite a bit, aren’t you?
Bill Nebeker: We are. I tell you what’s really difficult is because of the digital era, the museums want all the information faster, ahead of time. Used to be they only wanted the artwork or a picture of it just a month before the show. Now, they want it three months before the show. I have no rest time at all.
It takes six to eight weeks to get a piece to a foundry, get it made and get a first casting. I must be thinking two and three months ahead of time of what I need for a show down the road.
Prescott LIVING: What is your next big project and when?
Bill Nebeker: I’ve been selected to do an old-time sheriff life-size bronze in honor of law officers killed in the line of duty in Yavapai County. It’s going to be down by the bandstand on the plaza; I was contacted by the Sheriff’s Office. An officer looked it up for Yavapai County, there’s only been 16 officers that have been killed since way back in the 1880s.
It’s locally funded by donations and raffles and things of this nature to raise money. We decided to do an old-time sheriff, like 1880s or ‘90s. It will represent all forms and eras of law. We are going to mount him on a granite boulder because it’s going to be on the Plaza.
Prescott LIVING: What is it that compels you, keeps you creating?
Bill Nebeker: (pauses, then thoughtful, hand on chin.) I tell people the great thing about art — to me — is you can never live long enough to know and learn everything there is about it. There’s always something else there to strive for. That’s what pushes me to continually get better.
Photo: Bill trailriding in 2015.