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  • Writer's pictureShea Stanfield

Sculpting Stories of the West

“The trail West is wild with adventure, but every trail has its puddles,” sums up Arizona Cowboy Artist Bill Nebeker’s lifelong dedication to “keeping the story of the West alive.”  From the beginning, Bill was destined to summon an honest and authentic look at one of American history's shortest yet most powerful eras. 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 1942. The family relocated to Prescott, Arizona, in 1953, where his father worked as a cowboy on the Long Meadow Ranch outside of town. Bill grew up understanding 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 crossed in 1964 when Bill accompanied his parents to a one-person art exhibit in Prescott featuring Phippen’s sculptures. The bronze forms represented vivid scenes of ranch life and the ruggedly independent individuals who settled in the American West. At that moment, young Bill knew his future would take shape in bronze.

Bill soon found getting started as a sculptor in the mid-60s would have its challenges. Before embarking on a full-time career as an artist, Bill had a natural talent for conceptualizing ideas, which included thoroughly researching his subjects and striving for impeccably detailed compositions. His dedication to accuracy enabled him to accomplish a moving story in his clay forms. However, to understand the bronze casting process, Bill went to work at Bear Paw Bronze, run by Mrs. Louise and her son Ernie Phippen, located in Skull Valley, Arizona. While in the foundry, Bill learned the process of casting sculptures, which presented a number of challenges. Erie Phippen, up for a challenge, founded Thumb Butte Bronze Works in Prescott to improve the casting process and incorporate increasingly efficient techniques. Corresponding with the opening of the new foundry, Bill had acquired the skillset and tools to move into his career as a full-time sculptor.

His natural talent, keen eye, and persistence in his work paid off in 1971. Troy's Western Art Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona, began the representation of Bill's sculptures. By 1974, collectors were sitting up and noticing his work with his commission of the John Wayne Portrait in bronze sculpture; the piece landed him in Western Horseman Magazine with an article about the statue. Eventually, the piece was moved to the National Cowboy Museum as part of their permanent collection. The attention prompted Trailside Galleries in Scottsdale & Jackson Hole to pick up representing Bill's work, which they continue to sell today. The leadership of the Cowboy Artists of America invited Bill to join their ranks; in 1978, Sculptor Bill Nabeker became a group member in a ceremony held at the Phoenix Art Museum. During his 46 years of membership, Bill has served four terms as CAA’s president and works tirelessly to promote the rich cultural heritage of the American 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, AQHA Journal, and Western Horseman, to cite a few. His work is in dozens of permanent collections nationwide: the Booth Western Art Museum in Georgia, the Rockwell Museum in New York, the Eiteljorg Museum in Indiana, the Pearce Museum in Texas, the National Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma, and the Old West Museum in Wyoming. Locally, the Phoenix Art Museum, Desert Caballeros Museum in Wickenburg, and the Phippen Museum of Western Art in Prescott show Bill’s work as part of their permanent collections. Prestigious corporations and personal collections across the country recognize Bill Nebeker's work as among their most treasured assets, earning him recognition as one of the nation’s finest bronze sculptors.  

Locally, Bill Nebeker’s life-size commissions include Early Prescott Settlers, Yavapai County Fallen Officers Memorial, If Horses Could Talk and Ernest A. Love-Monumental Portrait Bronze Sculpture in Prescott, Arizona, Territorial Sherriffin Glendale, Arizona, and Memorial to Fallen Officers in Phoenix, Arizona to name a few. His works The Eyes of Texas and If Horses Could Talk are exhibited at Scottsdale's Museum of the West. Regarding public sculpture, artist Bill and his wife Merry are proud that his commissioned public works are not funded with general tax dollars. The funds come through the Arizona Community Foundation or private contributions.

Yes, every trail has its puddles; however, through it all, Cowboy Artist 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 Arizona’s Historian, Marshall Trimble, as one of "Arizona's 100 Culturekeepers." Bill continues to inspire us through his stories in bronze. Bill's available sculptures are on display at his home/studio in Prescott. He and his wife Merry often give tours of the studio and Thumb Butte Bronze Foundry by appointment for those interested in "the process." Locally, Bill's work is also represented by Trailside Gallery in Scottsdale. For a complete list of his contributions, accomplishments, and gallery representations, or to schedule a tour of his studio, visit his website.


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