In his latest book, Western sculptor Chris Navarro pays tribute to two of his passions: rodeo and art.
“I tell others being a bull rider was great training for being a professional artist … the two things you need to be a good bull rider are confidence and belief and those are the same exact things you need to make it as an artist or in anything else. I did not have much going for me when I started rodeo or creating art, no money or formal training. However, I did have a belief that what I lacked in talent and knowledge I could make up with effort and determination.”Chris Navarro, from The Art of Rodeo
Chris Navarro is best known for his larger-than-life sculptures of horses, cowboys, Native Americans and rodeo legends. Molding clay into monuments with his hands, he puts more than his time and talent into each bronze, he also adds subtle details from his connection to the Western lifestyle as a team roper and bull rider, and a profound passion that can’t be seen but is felt when you stand below one of his towering bronzes.
“My work has always been intertwined with my life,” says the artist from his gallery in the Tlaquepaque Arts & Shopping Village in Sedona, Arizona. “Family, horses, rodeo and art have been my driving passions, and I hope others can see that in my work.”
Navarro competed in his first rodeo when he was 16 years old and rode bulls in college and amateur rodeos into his early 20s. In the 1980s, after seeing artist Harry Jackson’s bronze Two Champs of a cowboy making a wild ride on the legendary bucking horse Steamboat, Navarro gradually pursued a career as a sculptor. Through the years, he’s sculpted more than 30 monuments of rodeo, cowboys, wildlife and Native Americans that are scattered throughout the West. He shares his deep knowledge and love for rodeo and art in his fourth book, The Art of Rodeo.
He begins with a chapter on world champion bull rider Lane Frost, the subject of his first monument. After making an 85-point bull ride, Frost died in the Cheyenne Frontier Days arena in 1989 from injuries he sustained. Navarro not only created the 15-foot bronze monument in honor of Frost, which stands at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum in Cheyenne, Wyoming, he also coordinated the sponsorships for it. The foundry where he was sculpting the piece caught on fire and the building and sculpture were both severely damaged, and Navarro had to quickly repair and finish it in time for installation and dedication in July of 1993.
“Champion Lane Frost is always going to be one of my favorite sculptures because of all the difficulties and challenges it took to complete it. I tell people that being a rodeo cowboy was actually great training for becoming a professional artist,” Navarro writes in the book. “The two things you need to be a rodeo cowboy you also need as an artist, and that is confidence and faith. Every time I started feeling good about the project, something would come along and knock me down.”
From there, Navarro takes readers through the roots of rodeo with stories about early competitors such as Yakima Canutt, Bonnie McCarroll, Bill Pickett and Jackson Sundown all the way to influential contemporary athletes like Lewis Feild, Larry Mahan, Jim Shoulders and Casey Tibbs. Besides writing an interesting narrative on the history of rodeo, Navarro also collected several vintage photos that aptly illustrate rodeo’s evolution.
The bulk of the hardback volume focuses on the two- and four-legged athletes that have shaped traditional rodeo events, as well as women’s breakaway roping and bronc riding. He also showcases specialty events such as chuckwagon racing and wild horse racing. Toward the back of the book, Navarro delves into the dangers of rodeo, including his own wreck that inspired the bronze Heck of a Wreck.
Navarro, who considers Wyoming his home, offers a comprehensive tribute to Cheyenne Frontier Days. He has attended the rodeo for many years and taken photos there that have become inspiration and reference for his art. He also credits Brandon Bailey and Randy Wagner, who contributed their artistic talents to the book. The book concludes with a chapter on the lost wax casting method Navarro uses to create his bronzes.
With more than 600 photos of rodeo and Navarro’s bronzes, the book is a well-illustrated anthology of rodeo written by an artist who has seen and sculpted it from all angles.
Read more about Navarro in the story “Monuments Man” in the November 2021 issue of Western Horseman.