Chris Navarro: The Art of the Cowboy
A cowboy walks into an art store…
What sounds like the set up for a joke is actually an inspiring story of chasing dreams. In 1979, Chris Navarro, a former rodeo bull rider, had a good paying job in the Wyoming oil fields. Yet when he walked into an art supply store in Cody and asked the owner to sell him all the materials he would need to become a sculptor, his life was about to take a drastic turn.
The day before, Navarro had made a chance visit to the home of sculptor Harry Jackson where he stood in front of a bronze of a cowboy astride a bucking bronc.
“It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen,” says Navarro. It had a beauty and a power to it. I just wanted to own it. But it was $35,000. I thought if I can’t buy it, I might be able to make one.”
After loading up with the necessary art supplies, Navarro visited the library where he checked out every book on sculpting he could find. And just like that, a day after seeing a single piece of art that moved him, the cowboy began an unlikely journey to become a sculptor.
The very first bronze Navarro created won first prize at a Cody, Wyoming art show, netting a $15 dollar prize and blue ribbon. For the next several years, he honed his skills as a sculptor applying a relentless determination to master his new craft. In 1986, with a wife and young son to support, Navarro quit his job to pursue his passion.
“You only have so many hours and days in your life,” says Navarro in his biography, Chasing the Wind. “I was working most of those hours, looking forward to my days off so I could sculpt and spend some time with my family. I decided I was robbing myself. It was no good to live outside your dreams.”
Today, Chris Navarro is an award winning bronze artist renowned for his realism. It’s not just the careful attention to detail that defines a Navarro sculpture. He has an uncanny ability to tell a story. Each piece reveals a single moment yet comes wrapped in a larger narrative. Viewers are pulled into the scene, drawn by the fluidity of movement, the powerful momentum. The sculptures may be bronze but nothing about them feels motionless.
Navarro may be best known for his large bronze sculptures with 30 monument pieces displayed throughout the country. And he’s working on 31, an Alamo story commissioned by the city of San Antonio.
“The thing about monuments I love is they’re going to be around long after you’re gone,” says Navarro. “It’s going to be kind of a cool thing for all my great-great grandkids to come by and see what old granddad had to say.”
His memorial to bull rider Lane Frost was one of Navarro’s first major pieces. Champion Lane Frost is a larger than life tribute to the rodeo legend who died at the age of 25 after being hooked by a bull. It’s an astonishing vertical that somehow conveys an explosive fury mingled with a sense of lingering serenity.
More recently Navarro completed the Essence of Rex, a life-size Tyrannosaurus rex. One side is skeletal while the other side is fleshed out. LED lights illuminate the piece from within. The striking beast stands guard at the entrance to the Tate Geological Museum in Casper, Wyoming.
While Navarro maintains a home in Wyoming, for six months of the year, he and his wife, Lynne, live in Sedona. He’s owned Navarro Gallery since 2000, an anchor of Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village. Like so many others, Navarro was drawn to Sedona by the stunning landscape.
“It’s so beautiful here and there’s a really good energy,” says Navarro. “Being an artist, positive energy is always a good thing. I put a deposit down on this space before it was ever built. It was just a cement pad. But I saw the vision of it. I was able to put all my big sculptures out here in the garden so it’s just been a great location.”
His work acts as the official greeter to everyone who comes to shop at the lovely Mexican-style hamlet. Two life-size bronze grizzly bears snooze at the entryway by the parking area, a piece Navarro titled Salmon Dreams.
From there, visitors walk into an idyllic oasis of art and nature. The sculpture garden features a bugling elk, a rearing stallion, a rock climber scaling sheer cliffs and more. The bronzes are set amid beds of roses surrounding a fountain that contains another Navarro piece, a bronze ring rising from the water capped by an explosion of doves taking flight.
“The gallery is full of art work I like. And if I like it, I hope other people will like it. Because I know what’s in my heart is in the hearts of others. Everyone wants to have something that will inspire them.” – Chris Navarro
All told, a dozen of Navarro’s large bronzes fill the space. It’s an eye-catching collection that pulls you into the gallery. There you’ll find Navarro’s dynamic sculptures and the work of 20 more artists. Woodcarvings, jewelry, oil paintings, watercolors, giclees and more line the walls and shelves of the vibrant gallery. Unlike more formal galleries that can seem stuffy and aloof, Navarro’s shop is comfortable and inviting. It’s accessible, just like his artwork. Navarro’s subject matter can be divided into a few categories: wildlife, inspirational and Native American, such as Spirit of the Thunderbird, an Indian medicine man engaged in ritual dance. Of course, rodeo remains a subject that will always resonate. While Navarro no longer climbs atop moody bulls, he still competes in team roping events. “I like being in flow, says Navarro. “I call it being in flow—the feeling of being so in tune with what you’re doing, whether it’s creating art or roping or riding bulls or flying a plane or whatever. You get so into the moment of what you’re doing, nothing else clogs your mind. Time just seems to be irrelevant. I love to live in that state.”
As someone who took an unlikely path in pursuit of his dreams, Navarro’s art does more than just tell a good story. It offers a challenge for others to saddle up and chase their own passion.
In Navarro’s latest book, Embrace the Struggle, he writes, “Seeing Harry Jackson’s Two Champs sculpture all those years ago made me want to become a sculptor. It lit a spark in me that still burns today. When others look at my life’s work, I hope it will light a spark in them to be inspired with hope and live life with determination.”
Story by Roger Naylor | photos provided by Navarro Gallery
For more information on the Navarro gallery, visit: www.chrisnavarro.com