All the pretty horses

Local artist remembers his childhood love through his celebrated horse art

Jerry Vaughn

Jerry Vaughn

Photo by Rudy Giscombe

Jerry Vaughn is suffering from horse separation anxiety.

Vaughn grew up on an Arizona ranch where horses were central to daily life. Now, since moving to Chico in October of last year, he’s living on a one-acre plot that’s too small and rocky to support horses.

So, instead of riding and caring for horses, he now sculpts them. He knows horses so well that he can carve them from memory. Sculpting horses, he finds, is therapy for him.

“It’s the feeling horses give you back,” says Vaughn, whose emerald eyes and pleasant smile reveal a sensitive nature. “If you spend enough time with them and have their complete trust, you can put them into dangerous situations and they’ll trust you.”

Like many artists, Vaughn has let his dreams guide his artwork. One dream in particular had a tremendous impact, he says. In it, he dreamt of his favorite steed, a horse that had died. He saw a white “spirit horse” rise from the dead animal and ascend to heaven—like a companion moving on to “greener pastures,” as the saying goes.

Vaughn woke up and began carving. By evening he had shaped the essential elements of the statue. When this work was eventually displayed at the 2002 Western States Horse Expo at Cal Expo last May, people clutched their chests, cried and said a piece had never moved them so deeply, Vaughn says. Horse lovers are like that.

“Greener Pastures” won the People’s Choice Award at the exposition. Jerry made many new contacts, and Equine Vision Magazine—"art for the horse lover"—is writing a feature article about him.

“Trip in Time”

Photo by Rudy Giscombe

Today, Vaughn sits in his studio dressed in worn brown leather boots and blue Wranglers. A white straw cowboy hat covers his salt-and-pepper hair. He spins the wooden base underneath his work in progress.

This sculpture depicts a Comanche Indian ready to heave a spear into battle while riding a sprinting charger. Vaughn pats the putty firmly with his thumb along the colt’s legs. He grabs a carving knife and slits the hump, slicing off pieces of clay; he dabs the extra on the head to form the mane.

“I think it’s right for the cowboy to have the proper dress,” says Vaughn, who has seen every type of cowboy, from Mexican vaqueros to buckaroos in Oklahoma and Texas. “And the saddle must be correct on a horse. … If the tack and the gear and the rider aren’t correct, it ruins the piece.”

When further carving will not improve the statue, Vaughn brings the mold to a foundry in Rocklin called Frostad Atelier, Inc. There it’s cast in bronze and then heated with a blowtorch to create a lasting color called a “patina.” Under Vaughn’s instructions, different acids are used to tarnish it with various hues. The cost for casting: $1,500. Vaughn sells his pieces for $3,000, but since “Greener Pastures” won an award its value has increased to $3,200. He’s sold four statues so far; one to a cowboy, one to a horse owner and the other two to “city people.”

“Greener Pastures”

Photo by Rudy Giscombe

Raised on a ranch near Phoenix, Vaughn participated in his first rodeo at age 8. His high school was too small to have an art department, so Vaughn never took a craft class. His career in clay started in October 2000, when his youngest daughter asked for help on a clay project. Vaughn made her a horse’s head.

Afterwards, his wife Kim consulted an artist and teacher named Christine Verner, who gave her some carving tools and a few tips. She noted that Vaughn had a “natural eye for proportion” and recommended that he take an 11-day seminar from Mehl Lawson, a member of Cowboy Artists of America. Lawson taught Vaughn techniques for adding movement to sculptures.

In two years, Vaughn has crafted nine works. He has many more in mind but doesn’t want to spoil the surprise.