By Edd Kellerman 

This year marks the 100th birth anniversary of local artist, and first president of the Cowboy Artists of America, George Phippen.  In celebration of the event, the Phippen Museum is presenting a special exhibition of his work.  This comprehensive exhibition of George’s artwork offers never before seen sketches that provide insight into his artistic process and techniques, and it also includes some of his best-known bronzes.  These pieces not only dramatically illustrate George’s talent, but they also speak to the impact he had on reviving the lost wax casting process for the creation of bronzes in America.

George’s natural talents enabled him to quickly master most any art medium that crossed his path, whether two or three-dimensional.  His lifelike pieces were done in many media, including woodcarving.  But he especially enjoyed clay modeling.  Initially, he was only able to produce sculptures by doing plaster molds and plaster casts that would then be painted in realistic colors.   Although they looked great, they were brittle and prone to breaking.  And because casting in bronze was only available on the east or west coasts, the logistics were simply too great for George’s resources early in his career.  Out of necessity, he even did some early experiments in metal casting using lead because of the relatively low melting temperature.

Although most galleries were less than enthusiastic about carrying bronze sculptures, George was convinced there would be a market for these pieces.  And in 1955 he found local Prescott investors who were willing to fund the casting of his artwork at the only foundry available in California.  In the end, George was right and the series was sold within six weeks of delivery.

The California casting experience was successful but some aspects were not worth repeating.  With nowhere else to go in the west, George was encouraged to get something going closer to home.  By teaming with local entrepreneurs, Joe Noggle and Joe Vest, and with the Hazeltine family providing financial backing, he was able to pursue casting in Prescott.  Then George’s friend, Bruce Fee, helped him gain a commission from the US Forest Service for a small bronze relief of Teddy Roosevelt commemorating Roosevelt’s 100th birthday.  This provided the team with just the incentive they needed to take a piece through the entire lost wax process.  Combined with a commemorative plaque, the completed work is still mounted on a granite monument at Jacob’s Lake, the entrance to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

For more complex pieces, the learning curve for the lost wax process proved wearisome because the only available bronze alloy caused few pieces to pour successfully.  In addition, the only reference books available proved to have incorrect information for many of the required steps.  Simple ‘open core’ castings were the only ones that were successful in the beginning, so George produced sculptures to stay within the constraints of the local foundry’s abilities.  Progress was made but the trial and error process sapped energy and finances.  However, after a few years, George opened his family-run Bear Paw Bronze Works at home in Skull Valley where he continued production.  Throughout his brief career, George was still able to cast copies of 35 sculptures in plaster, bronze or silver.

During those years, George would still often work as an extra hand at the Yolo Ranch, 50 miles north of Prescott.  As a result, he was inspired to depict the history of the Yolo and stories of wild cattle through his artwork.  Cattle were said to run down the rocky hillside so fast and hard they were known to have shucked off their hooves, and trying to keep up with such wild flight was a dangerous experience for horse and rider.  But the task of representing these scenes in bronze was also harrowing in its own right.  However, George never lost his passion for representing the ranching life he loved so much in an honest and realistic manner—and almost always with a keen sense of humor.

Be sure to visit the Phippen Museum before July 19th to see the current exhibition, Happy Birthday George! 100 Years of Inspiration, covering two full galleries.  For more information, please contact the Museum at (928)778-1385, or visit their website at www.phippenartmuseum.org.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit ideas for articles to dayspastprescott@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastprescott@gmail.com for information.