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Cowboy at Heart . . . The Western Sculptures of Jeff Skelley
by Karen Reider

When a friend enthusiastically described Jeff Skelley’s western sculptures, I became intrigued.  He suggested I check them out, and then told me Skelley had been sculpting for only about a year. I became reluctant.

I figured that he probably didn’t have much to show in such a short time. Little did I know. . .

When I arrived at the ranch, Skelley and his spirited wife Marty greeted me in the driveway. I liked them instantly.

Their aged dog approached me shyly, while their younger border collie ran circles around me throwing a toy and catching it madly in the air. We all laughed at his antics and chatted a bit in the driveway. I realized this would be a fun interview right off.

Before I could get the recording equipment set up, Skelley began talking about a piece he was currently working on. His eyes danced with excitement as he showed me the clay components that form the story he would tell.

A splendid horse stood beside a 1941 Indian motorcycle that was sinking in water and mud. The cowboy, who would soon sit on the horse, lay beside it in skeletal form.

I cocked my head and stated the obvious. Skelley explained that he begins all of his sculptures by creating their skeleton first. Picking up the cowboy skeleton he talked about beginning the horse the same way. He does this to get the proportions correct and show him proper muscle alignment. The second cowboy, also a skeleton at this point, was standing beside the motorcycle laughing at his current dilemma.

The piece is called “Cowboys and Indians,” and “represents the interface between the horse and the machine.” Skelley liked that period around the 30s and 40s when cowboys started getting their hands on jeeps and motor bikes. “They continued to do what they always did – chase cows. On machine or horse, they had some fun doing it.”

Skelley told me that collectors of Western art are very particular, and that anatomy is heavily judged. Having no formal training in anatomy, or sculpting for that matter, he relies on his photographic memory to get it right. Skelley has spent lots of time with horses, including his own, studying their movements and routines.

All of his art pieces tell a story. Another work in progress Skelley showed me was ”Abaco Barb,” an impressive horse running along the water’s edge.

A rare breed, the Abaco Barb resides on the Bahama islands. About 250 to 300 years ago in Abaco (Bahama), a few horses were left behind by the Conquistadors.

The horses have been living there all this time absolutely wild and had increased to more than 200 strong. People on the island would catch a glimpse of them occasionally but  didn’t know much about them.

Things changed when a logging company cut a logging road from north to south on the island, right down the middle. As nature was disturbed, the horses were soon affected. The herd was devastated, down to 19. Slowly built back to about 30, the horses have been pushed to one end of the island, and are in trouble.

Skelley is making the “Abaco Barb” sculpture and donating its profits to the Abaco Wild Horse Fund in an effort to help the struggling herd.

Marty, who was struggling to stay out of the room, came in with a hand full of pictures. Beaming enthusiasm, she showed me a photo of Skelley at about the age of five in full cowboy regalia. He laughed and blushed a little and shuffled me out to the dining area.

A recent project, “Planting the Flag of Freedom” adorned the table. Especially poignant since the September 11th attack on America, the piece “celebrates the freedom for which our American flag stands, and our western heritage exemplifies,” Skelley said.

While Skelley had already finished the original piece before September 11th, he hadn’t named it yet. When George Bush proclaimed “We are going to plant the flag of freedom forever,” the piece was named.

Since cowboys have always been known as a real patriotic group, Skelley thought it would be real appropriate to use them in this piece. He explained the “story” like this... “A couple of cowboys just hanging around on their ranch suddenly felt inspired. Nothing fancy, just spur of the moment, pure patriotic inspiration. They jump on their horses and ride out on the land ceremoniously planting the flag. That’s how they do it in Texas,” Skelley laughed.

The edition is limited to 50 pieces, “representing one sculpture for each state in our union.” Skelley went on to tell me, “Each sculpture can be individualized if desired by placing your personal brand or symbol at the top of the flagpole, thereby creating a truly one-of-a-kind sculpture.”

He used his friend’s horses and brands from Big Spring, Texas on the Arizona piece. Its detail and message are quite impressive.

In January, Skelley won the Best Sculpture award, at “Cowboy Classics,” the 2002 Arizona National Stock Show in Phoenix.

Marty and Skelley took me around the house to see the many, many sculptures he has created in this past year. I was astonished. There’s no way this guy sleeps.

They were all Western art, except for one that I was especially drawn to – “King of the Jungle.” Tarzan, my hero, atop a mighty roaring lion.

So how did the sculpting all begin?

“We were gallery hopping with some friends last Thanksgiving and Marty was checking out some sculptures and said to me, ‘you can do that.’”

She told him she wanted a sculpture for her birthday (in March), and had him promise to make her a bronze.

Having no previous experience with sculpting, yet not doubting his wife’s claim, Skelley had to learn and create the entire sculpture in just four months.

Very ambitious for a beginner.

Susan Kleiwer, a local sculptor that has become nationally known, gave him some pointers, showed him a few tricks of the trade - and with that he proceeded. The piece, entitled “Rush Hour,” consisted of Marty riding her horse with their dog running alongside.

“Everyone laughed,” Skelley said. They didn’t think he could do it, but it was complete by her birthday.

Sitting in amazement at all this man had accomplished, I was tempted to ask how old he was. I did however, mind my manners. He looked way too young to have done so much. His resume reads like an adventure novel. But then it was obvious that he and Marty like to keep things rollin’.

This couple loves traveling and doing shows to expose Skelley’s sculptures to the public. He likes getting a lot of feed back and enjoys sculpting at the shows. “I really love the interaction, especially with children.”

Despite their constant evolving lifestyle, Skelley tells me he will do sculpting for the rest of his days.

Future plans include making “Planting the Flag of Freedom” in monument size as well as other pieces.

Having no pattern to follow and find just where this man gets his extraordinary talent, I asked him what he thought.

“My talent comes from the Lord,” he said, “and I just practice a lot.”

You can call to make an appointment to view Skelley’s art (928) 284-5327, or visit his Web site (jeffskelley.com).

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