Today, I am going to switch it up just a bit and move away from the writing world to introduce you to someone in the art world: bronze sculpture artist, Chris Navarro. Chris and his wife Lynne are my neighbors and my friends. Lynne and I have become very close over the years, and recently she just signed on to be one of my beta readers. Chris is also a friend, and he’s also an inspiration to me. He’s a well-spring of creativity coupled with a healthy dose of cowboy grit. All I need to do is walk past his property, offer up handfuls of oats to his champion roping horses, and immediately I am reminded that here lives a guy who really understands what it means to risk everything to follow his dreams.
If you’re wondering what horses have to do with Chris’s path to becoming a nationally renowned artist, you’ll soon discover that horses and rodeo riding are integral parts of his journey as an artist. Chris has always loved horses. As a teenager, he particularly loved everything that had to do with rodeos and the fierce independence that characterized the cowboy way of life. Halfway through college, Chris and three of his friends left school to become professional cowboys on the Mid-States rodeo circuit. Chris traveled that circuit for two years, and did well enough to make it into the finals. However, an encounter with a bad tempered bull named Slim Jim, ended up bringing Chris to a fork in the road. While riding that angry, nearly 1,800 pound creature, Chris suffered a bad foot injury, and with no money for a doctor, Chris asked his friends to take him home. “There I was. My foot was mashed. I didn’t have a dollar to my name. I’d spent two years packed four in a vehicle, bulleting down a highway in an attempt to make the next rodeo so I could experience that eight second high. All I had to show for it was a variety of injuries, a couple of belt buckles, a battered gear bag, and a passel of memories both good and bad.”
As it turns out, however, Chris actually had more to show for that experience than just those fancy belt buckles. All those years spent riding in rodeos had taught him to be a risk taker, it had taught him that fears are meant to be faced, and it had taught him how to accept the losses along with the wins. Chris acknowledges that bull riders and artists actually have a lot in common. Both require you to believe in yourself and to be mentally tough enough to stand up to the challenges.
I have to admit that when I decided to write Cha’risa’s Gift I was not aware of how I would come to need that kind of cowboy grit. It is a skill I am still trying to learn. But what Chris has demonstrated to me over the years is that if you want to succeed, you have to believe in yourself and you have to believe in your vision. I’m going to tell you a particular story about Chris, one that illustrates exactly these qualities of mental toughness, risk taking, and the unwavering faith you need to apply to whatever it is you set your mind to.
What you first need to understand about Chris is that he is extremely intuitive. His whole journey as an artist began in the first moment he saw the famous bronze, “Two Champs” by Harry Jackson. The statue depicts a cowboy riding the famous Wyoming bucking horse, Steamboat. As soon as Chris saw it, he felt his whole world view change. The power and beauty of the piece spoke deeply to him and he felt a strong desire to own it. At a price tag of $35,000 though, buying it was not even in the realm of possibility. But Chris was not deterred. He couldn’t afford to own that piece, but he could afford to try making something like it on his own. Chris literally didn’t know anything about bronze work, or art of any kind for that matter. So, he went to Goedicke’s art store in Casper, Wyoming the very next day, and got his first introduction to sculpting, along with the necessary materials, from the owner of the store. Stashing the art supplies in his truck, he then drove to the Natrona County Library where he got the librarian to show him all the books they had on sculpting. And so began a self-taught education, one that relied heavily on the school of trial and error. It demanded his weekends, nights and vacations. It was not an inexpensive venture either. When he drove to Cody to cast his first bronze, he learned it would cost $1,000. His first couple of years sculpting, he spent more money at the foundry than he did selling art. But the memory from his first sighting of “Two Champs” spurred him on. He’d had a vision and had grabbed onto it with the ferocity of a bull rider. The gate had opened; he was committed to the ride.
Much the same thing happened thirteen years later when Chris decided to create his first monument. Chris was driving past the Cheyenne rodeo arena when an image flashed into his mind, an image of Lane Frost, a young man who had won the world championship in bull riding in 1987. He then lost his life competing at the 1989 Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo. As Chris continued driving, the images of that fateful moment replayed in his mind. He saw Lane riding the bull masterfully, saw him hold that seat all the way to the final whistle, and heard the exultant victory announcement of the 86 point score. But then tragedy struck. As he came off the bull, the bull whirled and gored Lane, killing him.
He was just 25 years old. No one had ever created a monument to a bull rider before, but suddenly, in that instant, Chris knew he had to it.
By this point in Chris’s career, he understood intimately that having a vision and making that vision a reality were two very different things. But, what he also knew was that he would find a way to make his first monument a memorial to Lane Frost. Chris first approached Lane’s parents. They had never met Chris before, but they loved the idea and threw their support solidly behind it. Chris then went to the Cheyenne Frontier Day Rodeo Committee. His original pitch to the committee was to have them split the fund-raising for the monument with him. The committee turned him down. Chris thought it over and then told the committee that he would raise all the funds if they would provide the pedestal for the monument. They accepted this new proposal, and Chris was now on the line to raise $250,000 dollars.
Chris didn’t have any experience fund raising, but lack of experience had never stopped him before and it wouldn’t stop him now. During the 1992 rodeo, Chris was given a full access pass to help him with his project of raising funds for the memorial. He offered every $1,000 donor a maquette (an 18” by 8” bronze replica of the planned monument). In addition, he told these donors that they would have their names engraved on the memorial base plaque. A gallery in Cheyenne also had the maquettes available, and the owner, Harvey Deselmes, took an active part in helping Chris achieve his fundraising goals. Chris also gave a maquette to the champion bull rider that year. When the bull rider went up to accept his prize, the rodeo folks made a public announcement about Chris’s project to raise funds for a memorial to Lane. API picked up the story, and soon, Chris’s monument was getting national attention. In one month’s time, Chris had 15 of the required 250 donors. Soon after that, he’d reached 55 donors, and with that number, Chris knew there’d be no stopping this project, even if it meant dipping into his family savings. That sacrifice was never needed, Chris’s fundraising efforts proved very successful and he raised the entire $250,000. But, that was not the end of this story. The Lane Frost memorial was about to encounter a whole new set of road blocks.
Chris had just started the enlarging process for the memorial when tragedy struck. Chris’s father had suffered a major stroke, and sixteen days later, he passed away. His father had planned to come to the memorial’s dedication ceremonies scheduled for that July. He didn’t live to see that day, but he was there in spirit, for Chris had carved his father’s name into the clay at the base of the sculpture.
After the funeral, Chris returned home and started to work intensively on the monument. His own studio was too small for a work that size, so he moved into the Caleco Foundry in Cody, Wyoming. There was a small apartment above the foundry, and that is where Chris lived Mondays through Fridays, working 12 to 14 hour days on the sculpture. On the weekends, he would drive back to Casper to be with his family. By early March, the massive clay sculpture was nearly finished. Chris was just about a week away from being ready to cast the bronze.
On the night of March 6th, disaster struck. Chris woke in the pre-dawn hours struggling for breath. Smoke had overtaken his small room above the foundry. He tried to get out the door, but was overwhelmed by the acrid fumes rolling up the stairwell. Down below in the foundry, an electric heated clay box filled with 100 pounds of petroleum oil base clay, had caught fire. The smoke was now so thick in Chris’s apartment that he had to crawl on hands and knees to reach the phone to dial 911. Things were deteriorating so quickly that Chris could see that he wouldn’t be able to wait for help to arrive. He made his way to a small window, tossed out what items and reference materials he could save, and then crawled out the window himself making a 15 foot drop to safety.
The fire truck arrived shortly after and soon had the fire extinguished, but the project had suffered a lot of damage. Much of Lane’s rodeo gear that Chris had borrowed from the Frost family to use as reference material, had also gone up in flames. Lane’s boots, the one he’d been wearing the day he died, all the photos of Lane Chris had borrowed from the Frost family, and Chris’s sculpting tools were among the casualties. The clay image had melted in places and had burned entirely off the steel armature in others. Chris would need to scrape off all the charred clay before he could once again begin the laborious detail work. It was a severe blow to the project, but by the middle of that morning, Chris had ordered more clay and replacement sculpting tools. He finished the memorial in time for the July 24th dedication.
Commissioning that monument on his own had begun as a labor of love, a way for Chris to leave his mark, showing that he’d been here and that Lane had been here, and that they’d both embraced the struggle holding nothing back. But the monument also marked an important turning point in Chris’s career as an artist. Sales of Chris’s work increased dramatically after the monument’s dedication, and Chris’s reputation as an artist spread well beyond the confines of Wyoming.
“I figure we all need a certain kind of toughness, and single-minded determination if we’re going to pursue our dreams. We can’t quit or give up, not even in the face of insult or defeat. I think we have to learn to trust our instincts. I believed I needed to do the memorial. Once I started the project, I never looked back.” (Chris Navarro, 2009 “Chasing the Wind” page 15.)
For anyone who would like to learn more about Chris Navarro you can find him at: http://chrisnavarro.com/
Chris also has a new book out called “Embrace The Struggle” filled with his story and the stories and pictures that go along with many of his most famous works of art. Here’s the amazon link: https://www.amazon.com/Embrace-Struggle-Chris-Navarro/dp/0692693890/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8
Chris is all about creative journeys, and just last week, he said that he has been thinking about turning his hand to writing a book of fiction. I won’t tell you any more than that, of course, there will be cowboys and horses and rodeos in the story, but there will also be so much more. It is a story about a man finding his way back from the darkest of places, finding a path to redemption. Knowing that inspiration has once again struck Chris, I’m feeling pretty certain that this book will become a reality.