Cowboy Michelangelo visits the Vatican

By Marisa Martin

If you ever find yourself in Santa Fe mesmerized by an energetic bronze of Geronimo so charged it seems about to molt or mutate on the spot, it is probably one of the masterful creations of Gib Singleton.

Singleton’s bronzes are lodged, hosted and collected across the globe. His dominant themes of western and biblical subjects manage to never contradict or eclipse each other, but are oddly supportive and symbiotic in spirit. This diversity of subjects is reflected by his collectors. Singleton is defined as the only artist to be simultaneously represented in permanent collections of the Cowboy Hall of Fame, the Vatican, the U.S. Olympic Committee Museum and the State of Israel (a bequest from the collection of Golda Meir).

A quintessentially American artist, Singleton is fascinated by characters like Sitting Bull and Doc Holliday and the clash between Indians, settlers and the U.S. military. Sympathy for Native Americans is evident with expression and gesture but never descends into cloying kitchniess, regardless of the extremity.

Buffalo Soldiers are a perfect vehicle for Singleton’s technique, which he tags as “Emotional Realism.”

Singleton explains this epiphany: “I saw art that touched me deeply … the ability to connect with the viewer on that emotional level determines the success of art or music or literature.”

Admiration for the freed slaves who fought admirably over 80 years is worked into bronze in his piece “Buffalo Soldier.” A generic soldier, sans fancy uniform, lunges forward toward an unknown horizon or enemy. His face patient and fearless, his horse lists precariously into the foreground or future.

Singleton may have had Frederic Remington in mind, his original inspiration for forays into western art. Remington lauded the Buffalo Soldiers as he personally traveled with their 10th Cavalry in 1888.

“They may be tired and hungry,” Remington wrote, “but they do not see fit to augment their
misery by finding fault with everybody and everything.”

Well aware of the drama and details of American history, Singleton’s attention is elsewhere in this piece. Knowing how “hard and how difficult” desert life can be, he emphasizes the roughened reality of their lives more than “chaps and gloves and gun belts,” which are included but sublimated in importance. Singleton projects the hardship and sacrifice in his subject’s lives, a common theme in anything of his from Indian raiding parties and gunslingers to Saint Francis.

Faces on his work are sometimes anguished, an emotion Singleton experienced firsthand in life by losing two children, one to a drug overdose.

Singleton explained how he used “those heartaches to illustrate my work” to Johnny D. Boggs: “I can put the emotion, what it’s like to lose a child at 25, and I can put it in Christ’s face. Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this, but I’m not doing a figure of the Christ; I’m doing what the figure of the Christ represents.”

His handling of the riders of the Pony Express is masterful. Massive, bronze horsemen become quicksilver as they appear to precipitate across space. It isn’t possible for fixed, metallic pieces to become more purposely forceful or directional in any other hand without becoming merely an abstracted arc.

Singleton’s full size version of “Pony Express” borrows from sculptors of the past and takes up from there. Mottled surface and haunted faces echo late-career Rodin, such as his “Studies for a Nude of Balzac,” but Singleton amps it up. His bronze laps like waves on a blustery day, especially in his action pieces, which can resemble a metallic tornado. Some stances and poses resemble Remington, but are varied, roughed up and modernized.

A video of the life-sized “Pony Express” being caste from Singleton’s original molds can be seen below:

"The Steer Wrestler," Gib Singleton

His “Steer Wrestler,” likewise, is superb and reminds me of Jacob wrestling the angel for some reason. Undoubtedly Singleton is now influencing a younger generation of artists, such as Canada’s Al Henderson.

Beginning with an almost stereotypical “poor farm boy makes good” story, Singleton’s life diverges constantly from the expected. As an innovative 16-year-old, he crafted a makeshift “foundry” from farm flotsam – a steel drum for burner and Electrolux vacuum cleaner for a blower. Stints in the Army and Chicago Art Institute led to a Fulbright Fellowship in Europe. There Singleton restored Renaissance art, worked at the Vatican and studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti.

From there Singleton followed the path less traveled – at least for American artists of the last century. Appreciating and learning as much as he could from great masters such as Donatello and Michelangelo (whose damaged “Pieta” he helped restore), he returned as “American” as he left.

A centuries-old trend has inclined American artists to value European culture more than the native and to feed off old-world “civilization” as expatiates. Isn’t this just artistic colonialism and extensions of a vast and permanent continental assertion of superiority?

Bucking all this, Singleton returned with national identity unfazed by the glories witnessed abroad and realized, “I’ve been half a cowboy since I was a kid.”

Coming across the Frederic Remington Museum sparked a plan to return to western art rather than only classical and religious themes.

It takes courage and professional confidence to keep cowboy hats and chaps on your statues when culture seems dictated by big coastal cities. Regional disdain and cultural pressure hasn’t affected Singleton, and although not a household name everywhere yet, he is highly esteemed in his craft and in many collecting circles. Those include a “Bowed Crucifix” design carried by Pope John Paul II on his crosier and a piece made for the Shroud of Turin. He’s made Stations of the Cross and chronicles the population of the Bible and various saints in bronze.

Singleton, at 77, appears an archetypal Southwesterner. Beard, cowboy hat and shirt, but simply spoken and absolutely unpretentious, his demeanor belies reality: Singleton the college professor, a restorer at the Vatican, Fulbright Fellow and a man who has studied for a Ph.D. in Greek mythology and theology. Very popular in Santa Fe, an entertaining raconteur and historian, Singleton immediately sets visitors at ease with his quiet, modest way.

Today Singleton is known more for his religious sculptures as he shifted directions back to his original interests. From this comes a growing body of religious work, which has ebbed and surged throughout his career. Singleton never completely dropped biblical art for western and finds no contradictions between them.

“Any time your subject is a human being, it’s a spiritual work,” he said. “You come into this world by yourself, and you go out by yourself, and nobody knows why that is.”

The lonely scout, the dejected native, Job and Christ on his cross.

Some of his recent works are beautiful. Particularly “St. Ignatius,” which reminds me of an El Greco painting, solidified in 3-D. Unearthly with his broken sword becoming a cross, his body almost unravels under the revelation of God.

"Father and Son," Gib Singleton

Or his “Father and Son,” from the Prodigal or a metaphor for us all; the figures are marred and seem to have gone through a fierce battle as a father carries his son to safety.

“Gib is a giant,” his friend and representative Paul Zueger believes. “I think 500 years from now, art historians will talk about Gib like they talk today about Rembrandt or Van Gogh or Michelangelo.”

Diagnosed with Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease almost 10 years ago and expected to die within weeks, Singleton was once again underestimated. He is moving slower and scaling back activities but is still planning for new work.

He hopes to share his concerns about our “troubled” times through his art: “There are a lot of things that make no ‘objective’ sense if we try to analyze them. Yet they do make sense – a great deal of sense – if we approach them with our hearts instead of our heads. That’s how I try to work.”

Singleton’s doctors consider him (for the second time) to be in the final stages of his illness, and this time he seems to be taking their pronouncements more seriously. Frank about his health issues and grappling with mortality, he tells us his next piece will be based on Luke 23:43: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

I personally wish him another miraculous recovery and a long, even more prolific life.

You can see Gib Singleton’s works at the Gib Singleton Museum of Fine Art in Santa Fe, N.M., Galerie Züger in Sante Fe, N.M., Master’s Gallery in Vail, Colo., and Museum of Biblical Art in Dallas, Texas.

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