Sculptors bring rodeo to life in Stampede competition
It’s one thing to ride a wild bucking horse; it’s another altogether to capture the powerful detail of bulging muscles, flying hooves and a cowboy hanging on for dear life.
But understanding rodeo is key to creating authentic, honest representations, first in clay and eventually as bronze sculptures.
“Bronc riding is something that’s hard to get out of your blood,” said Con Williams, a former rodeo cowboy from Belgrade, Mont., who now creates trophies for the some of rodeo’s best. He relies on personal experience when sculpting fine details and moving parts of both horse and rider.
“You kind of build from the inside out and try to keep the anatomy correct,” said Williams, who keeps horses and tack nearby to refer to when sculpting. “Sometimes you can work on it for a week and it doesn’t work. Other times, it can take two to three days and it works really well.”
Williams and 26 other artists are vying to have their bronze sculptures chosen by the Calgary Stampede as trophies for rodeo events and chuckwagon for the next five years. The Stampede has been awarding bronzes to its champions since 1940.
There are almost 200 sculptures of everything from tie-down roping scenes to large horse heads on display at the Agrium Event Centre at Stampede Park. A team of judges will choose 15 for rodeo champions, six for chuckwagon racing and three for the Calgary Stampede Novice Tour.
Most of the sculptures are in clay form; a few are already finished in bronze. To an amateur, it’s difficult to compare one horse and rider or chuckwagon sculpture to another. But judge Les McIntyre has a practised eye, even though it’s his first time judging the bronze competition.
“I look for the artistic value, the confirmation and detail in a bronze that pertains to the event. You can tell, when you look at a piece of artwork, a lot about the artists as far as their familiarity with the sport and the event. Authenticity, originality of an idea is important to me,” said McIntyre, a longtime track announcer for the GMC Rangeland Derby, former chuckwagon competitor and auctioneer who’s sold his share of western art sculptures.
“There’s some excellent artwork here today. This is not as easy as I thought it would be,” he said with a laugh.
Indeed, there’s a ton of talent represented in the room. Crystal Mossing of Rocky Mountain House, has had four sculptures chosen by the Stampede in the 2008-12 series, and another in 20132017, as well as the World Champion Blacksmith Trophy for 2008-2014. Notable artist Chris Navarro of Wyoming has crafted 31 “monumental” bronzes all across the U.S. and he also created the Stampede’s steer wrestling trophy for 2013-2017. And, Don Toney of Lethbridge has created more than 450 limited edition bronzes and eight life-size bronzes in his 37-year career.
But McIntyre said it’s also exciting to see new artists emerging: “There’s always new ones coming up that really change the game and add to it as well.”
Shay Keller hopes that includes him this year. A tiedown roper from Rockglen, Sask., he’s already making a name for himself after being awarded the contract to create bronzes for the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame inductees for 20162020. Adding a Stampede trophy would surely boost his young career.
“It would be a huge open door for me, lots of exposure,” he said.
Even though Williams has a few decades on Keller, he, too, says winning a Stampede bronze commission is a big deal.
“It’s an honour. This is the greatest rodeo in the world right here. So it’s really an honour.”
The public can view all of the sculptures Friday, Oct. 13 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the upper-level suites of the Agrium Western Event Centre. @michele_jarvie
Artist Con Williams stands with one of his entries in this year’s Calgary Stampede Champion Trophy Bronze competition at Stampede Park on Thursday.