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Sculpting Stories of the West

5/17/16

Shea Stanfield
Arts Columnist

“The trail west is wild with adventure, but every trail has its puddles,” sums up Arizona Cowboy Artist, Bill Nebeker’s life long dedication to “keeping the story of the West alive.”  Bill was destined, from the beginning, to summon forth an honest and authentic look at one of our shortest, yet most powerful, eras in American history. As Tom Mix once noted, “The Old West is not a certain place, in a certain time, it’s a state of mind.”

Bill’s journey began in Twin Falls, Idaho. In the early 1950s, the family moved to Arizona where his father worked, as a cowboy, on the Long Meadow Ranch, outside of Prescott. Bill grew up with an understanding of hard, honest work, and what it meant to be in partnership with nature, the community, and its history. Little did he know, as a young boy, his future was taking hold just up the road, where sculptor George Phippen, founder and first president of Cowboy Artists of America, was living and working. Bill and George’s paths would cross in 1964, when Bill accompanied his parents to a one-man art show, in Prescott, featuring Phippen’s sculptures. The bronze forms represented vivid scenes of ranch life and the ruggedly, independent individuals, who settled the American West. At that moment, Bill knew his future would be taking form in bronze.

Bill found getting started in the mid-60s as a sculptor was going to have its challenges.  Prior to launching as a full-time artist, Bill possessed a natural talent for conceptualizing ideas, thoroughly researching his subjects, and striving for impeccable composition and detail to accomplish his final snapshot of a moving story, in his clay forms. In order to understand the casting process, Bill went to work at Bear Paw Bronze, run by Mrs. Louise, and son Ernie Phippen, located in Skull Valley, AZ. There, he learned the process of casting sculptures along with the many challenges, as well. In an effort to improve the casting process and incorporate increasingly efficient techniques, Erie Phippen would found Thumb Butte Bronze Works, in Prescott. By this time, Bill realized he had the skill set and the tools to become a sculptor full time. His natural talent, keen eye, and persistence in his work paid off 1978 when he was invited to join the Cowboy Artists of America. During his 38 years of membership, Bill has served four terms as CAA’s president, and works tirelessly to promote the rich cultural heritage of the old west.

Today, 52 years later, Bill has created a legacy in his sculptures. The history he preserves with astonishing accuracy captures the life and spirit of our frontier lifestyle from the first Native People to contemporary ranch life today. His journey has been featured in Arizona Highways, Art of the West, Southwest Art, Western Art Collector and Western Horseman, just to cite a few. His work is in dozens of permanent collections across the country, from the Old West Museum in Cheyenne to Desert Caballeros Museum in Wickenburg, the Phoenix Art Museum and where it all started, the Phippen Museum of Western Art in Prescott. Prestigious corporations as well as, personal collections across the country recognize Bill Nebeker’s work as among the most treasured assets, earning him recognition as one of the nation’s finest bronze sculptors. Locally, Bill has commissions of larger than life-size pieces in Prescott, “Early Prescott Settlers”, in Glendale, “Territorial Sheriff” and in Phoenix “Memorial to Fallen Officers,” just to name a few. Currently his work “The Eyes of Texas” is on exhibit at Scottsdale’s Museum of the West.

Yes, every trail has its puddles, but through it all, Bill Nebeker is one of our own, standing up, reaching out, giving back, and preserving our western heritage. In 2009, Bill was recognized by the Arizona Historical Society and Marshall Trimble as one of “Arizona’s 100 Culturekeepers.” Bill continues to inspire us in his meticulously detailed bronze images. 

Many of Bill’s available sculptures are on display at his home/studio. He and his wife Merry often give tours of the studio and Thumb Butte Bronze Foundry for those interested in “the process.” Bill’s work also has gallery representation across the country. For a complete list of his contributions, accomplishments, and gallery representations or to schedule a tour of his studio, visit his Web site, www.billnebeker.com, for contact information.

Contact arts columnist Shea Stanfield at flowingquill@yahoo.com.