In depth: Storyteller in bronze
Cowboy artist Curtis Fort sculpts words, metal alike
June 3, 2018
If the United States Postal Service had a loyalty program, Lea County cowboy artist Curtis Fort would be a platinum member. Or maybe, more appropriately, bronze.
Almost every evening he's in the combination home/studio that he shares with his wife, Carol, near Tatum, he's at his kitchen table, a pen or pencil in his left hand, writing and illustrating notes to be stamped and mailed the next day.
In a world where it's easy to acknowledge a passing encounter or kindness with only a nod or a quick text, Fort instead jots down a few cheerful lines, adds a sketch of a horse, an elk, a mule deer, maybe a cowboy, and mails it off, usually within a day.
And he does that 500 to 1,000 times a year.
With those letters, plus charm, humor, and a knack for being in the right place at the right time, Fort has built up a herd of loyal friends and a fan-base for his meticulous bronze sculptures that reaches across the United States and around the world.
Curtis Fort may, in fact, be one of the best networkers to ever put a foot in a stirrup.
30 YEARS OF LETTERS
"I've got more than 30 years of Curtis Fort letters," said New Mexico writer Steve Zimmer, who divides his time between Las Cruces and Miami, New Mexico. "I've kept every one of them and someday I'll pass them down."
Albuquerque Realtor and ranch broker Tye Terrell Jr., who has known Fort since they were students at New Mexico State University nearly half a century ago, said he's gotten many of those letters over the years, too.
It's a habit that Terrell says "goes back to those original cowboy days" when the two of them were "cowboyin' for a living."
"I was making $160-$170 a month cowboying," Terrell remembers. "A dollar was hard to make, and a stamp was a lot less expensive than a phone call. Curtis was always mesmerized by Charlie Russell's letters and writing. He'd write letters in the evening after we'd come in from working. That was his mode of communication."
Most people who have crossed Fort's path talk about those letters.
Former State Land Commissioner Bill Humphries of Tucumcari, a longtime Fort friend, has a collection.
"I think I have saved darned near every letter and card he has ever sent me," Humphries said.
A STORYTELLER, PERIOD
Curtis Fort has been called by many a "storyteller in bronze," but the truth is, he's a storyteller, period.
Whether you're sharing a meal of steak fingers at a local restaurant, visiting at his kitchen table, or catching him on the road as he's traveling some of the estimated 30-40,000 miles he covers each year, you soon discover that Fort's supply of story material is as wide as a New Mexico sunrise, and at the drop of a hat, he's off and running like a top hand chasing a renegade steer.
"I guess we could say ... conservatively ... he does have the gift for gab," Zimmer says.
Fort also has decades of cowpunching experiences on some of the most legendary ranches in the West, an uncanny ability to remember names and places, and a wit just as quick as that bolt of lightning he once dodged, narrowly avoiding death.
"Many folks appreciate Curtis for his fine artwork," Terrell said, "but I think deep down inside, Curtis always wanted to be a comedian. He's put more laughter in my life than any other person."
FROM THE BEGINNING
Fort was born Oct. 19, 1949, in Lovington to a Lea County family with roots as deep as the mesquite that dot the rocky pastures.
Practically from the time he could sit upright, young Curtis was in a saddle working next to his father, Byron Fort, who managed the Dickinson ranch in Lea County for 30 years.
"That older generation, they were tough," Curtis Fort said. "They were rawhide."
From an early age, he was a fan of western art, poring over paintings by Charlie Russell, found on calendars given out by banks. When he wasn't pulling practical jokes in his Tatum High School ag classes, he flipped through western art books in the school library.
But that was an interest, not a career path.
"All I was ever gonna do was punch cows and I loved it," Fort said. "Had a guy we neighbored with - Clark Jones - telling me about a job on the Pitchfork. I heard it was straight horseback ... no fencing. I wrote to (ranch manager) Jim Humphries and asked for a job."
Humphries invited Fort to report for work on the iconic ranch near Guthrie, Texas, just as soon as he graduated from Tatum High School in May 1967.
"I spent most of that Friday (the day of graduation) rolling my bed and getting my saddle greased to get out of this country," Fort said.
It was a dream job for a young cow puncher: cattle work with a string of a dozen horses on 300 sections of big, brushy pastures.
Fort returned home at the end of that summer to attend New Mexico Junior College.
"My parents never got to go to college," he said, but they wanted a different road for their four children. "They pinched pennies to let us go. I stayed at home and made my grades."
He heard that on the Bell Ranch north of Tucumcari, run then by George Ellis, that "the wagon didn't pull out until June," so he wrote another letter and landed another job.
"I loved the Bells," Fort said. "I would have carried groceries to work there."
It was a summer job that continued even after he transferred to New Mexico State University. He didn't find out until years later, but his boss Ellis was the one who recommended him for the T.E. Mitchell scholarship that paid tuition and books for his last two years at NMSU.
He had a year and a half left on completing a bachelor's degree in range science when he admired some sculpting done by a fellow student and got his first lump of clay.
He was hooked.
Before long, he was molding figures in clay and carving others in wax, but both mediums had an unfortunate disadvantage. They were easily destroyed by heat and physical contact.
THE FIRST FAMOUS PERSON I EVER MET
Fort's sculpting friend said he was planning a trip to a foundry in Sedona, Arizona, to have a piece or two cast in bronze, and invited him to come along.
"I said no," Fort remembered. "Then he said, 'Joe Beeler lives there.' I said, 'Let's go.'"
Beeler, a legendary western artist, was "the first famous person I ever met," Fort said.
Fort is quick to say "right place, right time," for many of the good things that have come his way. One of those happened that day in Sedona in 1970. Beeler walked into the foundry while the two college students were there, and then invited them to his nearby home.
"Besides Charles Russell and Will James, Joe Beeler was a great influence on me ... a great artist, painter, sculptor, but as down to earth and as a real a person as you'd ever know," Fort said. "We really hit it off. He was a close friend for the rest of his life."
The walls of Fort's Tatum home are covered with overstuffed bookshelves, framed art, photographs, and dozens of letters.
"I have a wall full of letters ... illustrated letters, but the first one that started it all was a letter from Joe Beeler. He wrote a letter with a picture of a cowboy using an eyeglass looking for strays." He pauses, and then, because he knows cowboys well, he adds, "or bill collectors."
Fort said he loved playing with clay but the idea of getting something cast was not an affordable option for him.
Enter two benefactors.
"Donald Brown from Bledsoe and Don Hofman at the Bells said they'd pay to get some of my pieces cast," he remembers.
They took three pieces to the House Bronze Foundry in Lubbock in 1973, and "the foundry owner said he'd look at them," Fort said.
Fort fretted through the lunch that followed, believing it was a vetting process and he might have to face rejection.
House Bronze ended up doing all three, although Fort says in retrospect, "they were definitely not worth casting."
Even so, "it was like Christmas waiting for them."
Still at the Bells, Fort wrote a letter to Western Horseman magazine with a picture of himself on horseback and a photo of a bronze he had done of a bucking horse.
Once again defying the odds, his letter and photos were plucked from the bag full the magazine received each month. It was published.
"I got 200 letters in reply," he said, including one from an art collector in Dallas.
Sales followed and so did a showing of his work at a gift shop in Raton, which put him in the right place at the right time yet again. He visited nearby Vermejo Park, "800 sections, all deeded, 10,000 mother cows, elk, a cowboy outfit, all cow punchers." There was a job, and he corralled it.
THE SMITHSONIAN ARTICLE
By coincidence - or Fort magic - he started work at Vermejo Park the day that the Pennzoil Corporation assumed ownership of the enormous private ranch, an action that attracted a writer named John Neary to come and do an article for Audubon Magazine.
Neary tapped Fort as a local expert on proper names for the cowboy gear he was writing about. In keeping with Fort tradition, the two became friends.
A few months later Neary returned to Vermejo Park and told Fort he'd been given the go ahead to do a feature for Smithsonian magazine on his budding western artist pal.
"I'd heard of the Smithsonian museums," Fort said, "but I never had heard about the magazine. No telling how many doctors' offices and coffee tables it was on. "
Photographer Terrence Moore arrived from Arizona to take photographs to accompany Neary's words, and was recruited into the posse of Fort's lifelong friends.
The finished article, "Cowpoke-sculptor rides the range," appeared in the November 1975 issue.
"It cost $1 a copy," Fort said. "I bought 50 copies. It captured what made me tick and what I love."
The resulting publicity brought both Fort and his work to the attention of a national audience, and within a few years, he was sculpting full time.
BEHIND EVERY MAN'S TRACK
Fort met his wife, Carol, at one of his art shows in her hometown of Albuquerque in the mid-1990s.
"Charlie Russell said about his wife Nancy, 'Look behind every man's track ... there's a smaller track pushing or pulling,'" Fort said. With a background in marketing and event planning, Carol took over the details from orders to invoices.
"She keeps us on the up and up," her husband says.
"When somebody asks me how do I get a piece of your art, I say, 'Talk to Carol,'" Fort says. "Carol handles all the dirty stuff. Everybody likes her. She has a fun personality. She's fun to be around. She's cool."
The Forts came home to Lea County in 1998, settling back on the Llano Estacado where Curtis grew up.
"I'm a city girl who was always a wannabe cowgirl," Carol Fort said. "This is heaven for me."
While she is the computer-savvy half of this relationship ("which is sad," she says with a laugh), much of the networking is stored in her partner's vast memory.
"Curtis can tell me where he met anybody," Carol Fort said. "He has huge files of addresses and phone numbers, but he remembers names, and kids' names, and the grandkids ... and the name of the dog."
"It's just good business," Fort interjects.
"He cares about people, too," Carol says. "It's not just good business."
A NEW MEXICO ROUNDER
Aside from one show a year at Ruidoso's Tanner Tradition in conjunction with the annual Cowboy Symposium there, Fort's work isn't often found in galleries. He isn't on social media. He doesn't text or own a smart phone. He knows how to type, but he prefers writing by hand.
"Curtis is a consummate student of all things western, not just the cowboy culture," according to New Mexico artist and cowboy Gary Morton who met Fort when they were both young men at the Bell Ranch. "Mountain men, Indians, wildlife, and history are important to him. His storytelling ability is evident in his life and art."
Fort and Morton are two of only 23 New Mexicans to have received the state Department of Agriculture's Rounders Awards, a lifetime achievement award created in 1990 by former New Mexico Secretary of Agriculture Frank DuBois to "honor those who live, promote, and articulate the western way of life."
Morton received his kudos in 2015. The 2017 edition handed out last October at the governor's mansion in Santa Fe went to a southeastern New Mexico trifecta: Fort, Lea County Museum Director Jim Harris, and Carlsbad saddle-maker Rosemary Wilkie.
"Curtis has lived much of what he portrays in bronze," Morton says of his longtime friend and fellow artist, "and if he has not actually lived it, he has taken the time and interest to make sure the detail is accurate to the time period and the story is correct. His natural storytelling ability comes through in his art."
Lea County historian Jim Harris said sharing the Rounders Award with Fort was "some great company to be in."
A CLOSET FULL OF BOOTS
Carol Fort says her husband doesn't own a pair of footwear that isn't boots.
"I bought him a pair of sneakers once, but he told me to take them back," she said.
When the swamp cooler perched atop the metal roof on their home needed some maintenance, she says Fort climbed the ladder in his boots, lassoed the defective cooler, and then secured himself with the lariat so he could work on the slippery slope.
She suggested rubber-soled sneakers might be a safer alternative.
He scoffed at the notion, Carol recalls.
"He said he was afraid he'd slip and it would be just his luck to die wearing tennis shoes."
BODY OF WORK
While his works are found in corporate offices and high-end hunting lodges, Fort strives to keep his art affordable, so it's also within reach of the working cowboys who inspired much of it.
The catalogs Carol puts together on compact disks show Fort's bronzes that are available to the public: action scenes with horses, cowboys, Native Americans, historic western figures, all manner of wildlife.
Bronzes are poured one at a time. Editions vary depending on the size; a small piece may be recreated 25-30 times. Bigger pieces have smaller runs.
"We're all human," Fort said. "We all want something not everyone else has."
His newest installation - scheduled to have been unveiled Saturday - was commissioned by the Maddox Foundation to grace the entrance of the multi-million dollar Center of Recreational Excellence complex in Hobbs.
It features a covey of life-sized blue quail, a jackrabbit, and leopard frogs around a bubbling bronze-lined spring, a tribute to the importance of water on these arid High Plains.
The largest piece he's ever done - a full-sized riderless horse - was installed a year ago on the campus of Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas, a memorial for the Big Bend Law Enforcement Officers Association in honor of law officers lost in the line of duty.
His favorite piece might be "Cow Country Amigos," two horses standing with necks crossed, inspired by two of the remuda from his days on the Bells.
"It's a touching piece," he said. "It's real. In a year's time, I sold 25. If all my pieces did that, you couldn't stand to be in the same room with me."
MAKING IT REAL
Fort is a stickler for detail and he wants his work to resonate with those who see it.
"I like history and I want it right," he said. "I think the most important thing for realism is proportion, and then authenticity."
"You know," his friend Steven Zimmer says, "he had no training, but he has a good eye and he sees well. In my opinion, for accuracy and confirmation and getting a horse right, he's as good as they come. Other artists may have had more training but they don't know which end of a cow gets up first."
Details matter to Fort.
"The biggest compliment," he says, "is when a cowboy says, 'That's just the way it is,' or 'I had that happen to me.'"
A SPECIAL SPOT
Fort's network continues to build like a piece of work in his studio, one dab at a time.
"You do a show and you don't sell a thing," he said, "but six months later they'll call and say, 'We saw your work and we want you to do something.' You find out connections between people. It's a small world ... you probably know their cousin, if you dig deep enough."
He looks around at other artists and says, "There's a lot that's better than me," but adds, "I've been very fortunate. I really, really have. Been at the right time and the right place a lot of times."
He's still humbled when he drops in somewhere for a cup of coffee and sees one of his bronzes.
"They have a special spot in their home for that piece," Curtis Fort said, almost like it's hard to believe. "They didn't know I was coming by and it was already sitting out. They look at that every day of the year. That means a lot to me."
FUN FACT: Fort is a cowpuncher, and a Rolling Stones nut. His favorite Rolling Stones song is "Gimme Shelter."