Bill Nebeker: Preserving a Tradition
Bill Nebeker is the longest serving full member of the Cowboy Artists of America, and he has stories to prove it.
Bill Nebeker competes in a calf-roping competition in 2006. Photo courtesy the artist.
In 1965, four cowboy artists found themselves huddled around a table at the Oak Creek Tavern in Sedona, Arizona. The men, quick to laugh and in good spirits, threw back some beers and reflected back on a trip from a year earlier in Mexico, where they worked on a cattle ranch and bonded over the shared experience. And that’s how the Cowboy Artists of America was born.
Throw a rock in a still pond and the ripples radiate outward across the whole pond, but the ripples are largest near the center. A 90-minute drive to the southwest from Oak Creek Tavern, in Prescott, Arizona, Bill Nebeker had a front row view of Western art history, a history he would soon be contributing to.
“It was an exciting time back then,” he says. “You could sense that big things were about to happen, which was certainly reflected in my own life, first as a saddlemaker, then working at a foundry and finally as an artist. I just knew I was going to be
involved in some way in the Western way of life, because that’s how I was raised.”
Bill Nebeker was a bit too young to be part of the birth of the CAA, but he was right there at its epicenter taking it all in, just one or two levels removed from the action. He was born in southern Idaho, but due to a bad case of asthma his family moved south— first in 1948 and then permanently in 1953—looking for cleaner air and slightly warmer weather. Around that time, Prescott was the home of John Hampton, and George Phippen was a short drive out of town in Skull Valley. Charlie Dye and Joe Beeler were in Sedona, but their presence was felt far and wide in Arizona. Prescott, it seemed, was an ideal place for a young, talented artist looking for guidance on his career.
“You talk about a cow town, this was a real cowboy town in 1948,” Nebeker says, adding that he drifted away from the Western way of life during his asthma years. “After I graduated from school, I really had a desire to go back to my original roots so I started wearing Western clothes again, bought me a horse, learned how to calf rope—i just started down the road from there. I had friends who had ranches, so whenever they had a brandin’ I would go drag calves and then I was always making
Bill Nebeker during the 2015 CAA trail ride.
Bill Nebeker works on a revised version of If Horses Could Talk in his Prescott, Arizona, studio. The work will eventually become a life-and-a-half monument.
The Cowboy Artists of America pose for a photograph in 1983. Bill Nebeker can be seen seated in center wearing a black hat.
A photograph of Bill Nebeker meeting John Wayne is framed behind a bronze of Wayne created in 1974.
Chasin’ Mavericks, 2017, bronze, 23 x 7 x 9”