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Unbridled Spirit

Author: Judy Harper
Issue: August, 2015, Page 90
Photography by Jesse Rieser

A storyteller in bronze, sculptor Curt Mattson says he is fortunate to have always been surrounded by horses and ranching. His passion for the Western lifestyle and Western American history fuels his imagination as he preserves the past in the art that he creates.

Curt Mattson’s Breathtaking Bronzes Explore  the Timeless Bond Between Man and Horse

For some artists, their creations are just that—something they create. But for others, their work is not just what they do, it’s an extension of who they are. For sculptor Curt Mattson, his life is his art, and art is his life. Whether life-size or tabletop, his award winning bronzes don’t just tell stories about the West, they make it come alive. As you walk around an individual piece, a story unfolds from a vaquero on the back of a buckin’ bronc, to a cowboy rounding up a big ol’ steer, to a trio of horses running free.

“Dealin’ With the Bolter, ”35"H by 25"W by 23"D

One piece in progress, an oil on linen, shows a buckaroo working a herd of cattle.

“Art is about communication,” explains Mattson. “I’m telling stories to people who collect my art. If the piece doesn’t communicate to them, it doesn’t matter—it has no value.”

A true cowboy, Mattson says life is his greatest teacher, and much of his artwork shows what he has experienced firsthand on the back of a horse. Whether sculpting cowboys, horses or wildlife, he strives to capture the movement, flow and emotion of the moment. And although they are cast in bronze, the figures are seldom static. There is no guesswork involved—in the action that takes place or in his subjects’ precarious positions - for this self-taught artist who went from full-time horse trainer to full-time sculptor in 1987. “Most horse trainers end up broken or broke,” he notes. “To be able to do what I do every day, with these horses and my art, is truly remarkable and such a blessing.”
A warm and gentle man who takes pride in his work, Mattson speaks with a tone of affection and respect that can only be earned through a life of humility, honesty and hard work. He fondly recalls a child-hood spent riding horses in California, as well as days as a ranch hand working with renegade horses and cowboys throughout the West. Those memories made their way into his soul and are now expressed through his fingers into the clay.

In 1979, while working on ranches and surrounded by horses, Mattson wasn’t looking for another obsession. However, a trip to the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City (now called the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum) changed all that. “I walked in, and the first thing I saw was James Earle Fraser’s “The End of the Trail” sculpture,”  he recalls. “Having grown up with the old vaquero way of working horses, I took one look at what the artist did and thought, ‘oh golly!’ I didn’t know guys made a living at this cowboy art. How great it would be to create art like this that tells stories and leaves records of this great way of life. It gave me the spark and put such a fire in my belly.”

“Wild Horses, Wilder Women,” 39.5"H by 27.5"W by 17"D
Desire, though, does not always equal instant success. He started playing with clay in his spare time. “I took my first piece to an artist to critique. We tore it up, and I started all over again,” he says, remembering an early failure. “It did look a little like Gumby,” he admits. But true to his cowboy spirit, he got right back in the saddle. As time progressed, Mattson developed and refined his technique. And for many years, he traveled from multiple Southwest states to Arizona to attend an annual weeklong class at the Scottsdale Artists’ School, bringing his bedroll and staying at a cheap motel—all he could afford at the time.

Nothing teaches like life, though, and Mattson lets his surroundings and experiences guide his learning. “My background as a horseman has a lot of influence on my work—I understand expressions of the horse, what he’s going to do, and what it feels like—and I bring that right into my art, whether it’s a sculpture or a painting. It provides a genuineness,” he says.

Mattson is also recognized for the authenticity and realism of his pieces. He has studied the animals, men and women carefully and has been researching the turn-of-the-century West for years. A history buff and a stickler for details, he frequently consults his library of books and catalogs to make sure that every saddle, bridle, rope, blanket, boot or article of clothing precisely matches the time period of the story he is telling in bronze.

A meticulous man, Mattson turns blank canvases and lumps of clay into soul-stirring, distinctive works with integrity.
“I owe it to my collectors to get things right. If it’s ugly in bronze, it’s ugly for a long time,” he says. “The only reason I get to create this art is because someone thinks it is good enough to buy, so every-thing must be dead-on and artistically exceptional.”

His detailed compositions have received many awards, and he participates in numerous art shows and exhibitions—he’s been a fixture at Scottsdale’s Celebration of Fine Art show for 13 years. He also teaches at the Scottsdale Artists’ School where he once studied so diligently. And a loyal following of collectors across the country is eager to sing his praises. “Not only is Curt a remarkable sculptor, he’s a remarkable person. As he tells of his inspiration for a piece, you can feel his passion for sculpting and for the American cowboy,” states one admirer. Another called him  “the real deal—an artist, a cowboy and a gifted storyteller who brings historical accuracy and passion to each piece he creates. He brings the West alive.”

Tall and slender, Mattson rises at 4:45 every morning and is quickly out the door to feed the horses and clean the stalls before a morning ride, breakfast and prayer time.
No matter what he decides to sculpt, Mattson doesn’t have to look far for inspiration. The 58-year-old resides with his wife, Wendy, and horses Trucker and Quinn in Cave Creek, surrounded by thousands of acres of prime horse country. Not one to have idle hands, he works from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday. He spends one hour drawing, a couple hours painting and the rest sculpting.

“You have to be very disciplined as an artist—you can’t wait for that light to come on; that’s an excuse,” he insists. “The light will come on once you start working.

“Riding horses each morning is our downtime,” he adds with obvious satis-faction. “It can be a really crappy morning, but we climb on our horses, and it becomes such a great day. I have to tell you, there’s just nothing better than to be working with these horses, whether it’s through art or on their back—there’s nothing better than that. To be able to combine the two is remarkable. I am so blessed.”

“Short End of a Long Rope,” 28"H by 42"W by 10"D

“When Lancers Won the Day” 23.5"H by 15.5"W by 9.75"D
“Letter From Home,” 58"H by 26"W by 40"D
“Carrying on the Tradition,” 27.25"H by 11.5"W by 8"D

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