Interpretations of a Heritage
Photos by David Cobb
Western artists live their art. Their work expresses a reverence for the lives of the people, the animals, the land and forces of nature that define the American West. The works of Peter Robbins, Paul Moore, Kristen Vails and Robin Wolf distinctly embody Western heritage in diverse artistic expressions, as these artists respectfully pay tribute to the pioneering past of the American West and the spirit of perseverance vital to its future.
The images in Peter Robbins’ photographic work are taken literally “on the job,” as Robbins works alongside present-day cowboys. Robbins takes his photography a step further by painting his photos onto canvas, creating mixed media pieces that are one-of-a-kind works of art. Robbins’ photos capture some of the most extreme working conditions he and the other cowboys endure, from blizzards to scorching heat.
In the past, Robbins has endured his fair share of demanding working conditions as a photojournalist for the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Dallas Times Herald and Ft. Worth Star Telegram, and several European and American magazines. Robbins worked on assignments for these newspapers in Central America, South America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. “I have learned how to say, ‘May I take your picture?’ in 11 different languages,” he explains. However, Robbins says that working with cowboys is by far the most demanding job he has ever loved.
Since April, Robbins has been herding 3,000 head of cattle over 3,000 miles between Montana and Texas while working with the Spade Ranch, famous for its innovation of barbed wire. Thus, Robbins’ photos taken on these cattle drives, currently featured at the Howell Gallery of Fine Art in Oklahoma City, represent the resiliency, determination and compassion of contemporary cowboys.
“Spending days and then weeks working and living together in all kinds of weather and conditions not only creates an environment for incredibly humorous stories, but also the inspiration to tell the cowboy story in a new way to a greater audience,” Robbins says. “I have had the opportunity to work alongside and to photograph many great cowboys in Texas, New Mexico and Wyoming. Without exception, every man I’ve ridden with is someone I would trust my life with.”
One of the most highly-acclaimed and visible visual artists in Oklahoma is Paul Moore, a member of the (Creek) Muscogee Nation, who works out of his busy studio in Norman. Visitors to Oklahoma City’s Bricktown area are treated daily to Moore’s Centennial Land Run Monument, which is a highlight on the tranquil boat ride along the canal. This immense monument commemorating the spirit and determination of the men and women who rode in Oklahoma’s five land runs has been in development for more than a decade. The life-and-one-half size figures of land run participants, frozen in motion as they race to claim new homesteads, stand majestically on either side of the canal. Moore is currently finishing the last five pieces of the monument, which, upon completion during the next two years, will become one of the largest freestanding bronze sculptures in the world.
“I try to capture the spirit of the moment in my works,” Moore explains. “I research extensively and to try to capture the personality and essence of an individual when I am creating a portrait – not just their persona. In the Chisolm Trail monument in Duncan, and in the Land Run Monument, I tried to capture the spirit of the action. I researched personal accounts to imagine the excitement those individuals must have been experiencing at that time.”
Moore has been working on multiple commissions concurrently with the Land Run Monument, including a 10-foot tall figure of General Wayne Downing for the newly renamed General Wayne A. Downing Airport in Peoria, IL, and an additional 10-foot figure of General Hugh Shelton for Fort Bragg, NC, among many other public and private commissions. In addition to paying tribute to the spirit of the West in his work, Moore honors his Native American heritage in new works to be unveiled during the Cowboy Artists of America exhibition in October at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.
Trust extends from cowboys and cowgirls on the Western frontier to their most valuable companions and vehicles, the horse. Kristen Vails has devoted her entire body of paintings to these majestic animals. Growing up in Piedmont, Vails fell in love with horses. And after leaving home to study art at the University of Oklahoma, she began painting horses as a way to remain connected, in a sense, to the animals she missed back home.
Using the horse as a vehicle for expression, Vails’ work evolved to capture spiritual aspects in nature that relate to the human condition. “I embrace our innate desire to understand our existence,” Vails says. “I find it beautiful and ironic that our complexities are all so similar. I find that painting the horse in various natural instances can carry a different meaning when human emotions are conveyed. For the viewer, I strive to portray that these creatures are able to go beyond the sole purpose of their base need for survival and can begin to consider the intricacy of their place in this world. I believe the viewer can relate the horse with their own conditions through my conception of beauty.”
Vails plans to convey a softer side of horses at the upcoming 12 x 12 exhibition (see “Square Deal,” page 34) on September 28 at 50 Penn Place in Oklahoma City. The small scale of the pieces (12" x 12") in the exhibition offers an opportunity for Vails to reveal the subtle, calm energy of these beautifully powerful animals. Vails’ work can also be seen on September 29 at the Plaza District Arts Festival on N.W. 16th Street. Vails is the Executive Director of the Plaza District, which continues to be revitalized with art galleries, studios, retail shops, restaurants and creative services, as well as the Lyric Theatre’s venue at the Plaza, and Everything Goes Dance Studio.
Robin Wolf’s handcrafted pottery honors the natural beauty of the clay, wood and other natural materials incorporated into the pieces, which are collected locally near Wolf’s home and studio in Kingfisher. Wolf maintains a reverence for her environment, which provides the materials for her work, and shares that sensibility with her collectors, whom she hopes appreciate the works’ beauty as well as functionality. “Each piece is uniquely designed to complement the natural beauty that Mother Nature bestows upon us,” Wolf says.
While Wolf’s pottery expresses the beauty of fine art, she does not intend for the pieces to be appreciated from a distance. Her works are glazed “food safe” and may be utilized and often washed just as other dishware. “When you pour a cool drink from one of my pitchers, quietly enjoy a steaming cup of tea, or treasure the smiles and love shared as you gather with the people that you care about around a table that includes Robin Wolf Pottery, think of Oklahoma and the land that influences each piece of work that I create.”
Wolf currently is working with a highly specialized oil spot glaze, which collectors can look forward to seeing at Oklahoma City Community College’s Arts Festival Oklahoma, from September 1 - 3. This temperamental process requires perfect timing and temperature during firing. When the process is successful, the iron oxide in the clay releases one oxygen molecule, which travels up through the molten top glaze to create a black spot in the color of the top glaze, and a playful polka dot pattern emerges in the pottery.
Wolf’s pottery is also available at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art in Norman, Bricktown Red Dirt Marketplace and Aunt Gertrude’s House in Guthrie.