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Spurs, saddles & sculpture: Presidential artist unleashes Old West

Posted: Monday, Feb 7th, 2011


RONALD RIDES ON – Templeton artist Jim Stuckenberg took his place in history when he was honored as a Presidential Artist during a dedication at the Reagan Centennial Celebration on Jan. 31. The historic event kicked off at the Reagan Ranch Center in Santa Barbara and marked the opening of a new exhibit featuring Stuckenberg’s sculpture of Ronald Reagan riding his favorite horse, pictured above.


Hayley Thomas

Staff writeR

World-renowned artist Jim Stuckenberg, 68, hauls a heavy, bronze statue out of the cab of his pickup truck and sets it down carefully on the turned-down tailgate, providing an impromptu art show in the middle of the sleepy Vons parking lot.

Atascadero shoppers rolling by with rickety carts can’t help but gaze at the gleaming figure throwing off light – or the reporter snapping dozens of photos from every conceivable angle.

The Templeton artist’s statues are a 360-degree experience; his subjects are in perpetual motion and tell real stories of horsemanship, the Old West and of the artist’s lifelong love affair with the ever-shrinking open range.

Zooming in, I realize the closer you get to Stuckenberg’s art, the richer his story becomes. A heart-thumping Wild West scene rages before my camera: A rough riding-cowboy charges full-speed ahead, his horse in mid-gallop, its windswept mane a tangle of fury and power. The whiskered ranch-hand grips reins tight in his calloused left hand, raising his right arm expertly to lasso a pair of rouge cattle hell-bent on freedom. The title of the piece, “On The Open Range” says it all.

“The movement is the main thing. I try to make everything look like it’s flowing,” said Stuckenberg.

The artist happily hauls out more awe-inspiring statues - a jockey soaring over a jump, a lone buffalo no doubt roaming his rightful “home on the range” and a frighteningly fierce native American warrior wielding a spear, among them. Stuckenberg notes that the native’s horse – frozen in a proud, rearing stance - bears a “U.S.” symbol on its rump, signifying that the animal was commandeered from an American soldier. The fate of that early westerner adds a silent cliffhanger to the piece. Stuckenberg smiles knowingly as I praise the work as my favorite yet.

Born completely deaf, the man is an expert at reading lips, although he’d hardly have to in this situation. I’m not the first person to commend his compelling combination of vivid imagination and merciless detail. Collectors around the world have coveted Stuckenberg’s sculptures and paintings for decades. Famous fans include late Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi, football great Terry Bradshaw, Jimmy Rogers (son of comedic cowboy Will), the local Hearst family, Western series stars Fess Parker, Duncan Renaldo and late president Ronald Reagan, among many others.

In a recent proud moment, the Templeton resident was distinctly honored as a presidential artist during a Ronald Reagan Centennial Celebration held at the Reagan Ranch Center in Santa Barbara last week.

The event marked the opening of a new exhibit featuring a prized Stuckenberg piece: A bronze statue depicting the 40th president riding his favorite horse.

The artist first struck a chord with then-governor Reagan back in the late 60s. At just 24-years-old, the artist presented “Ronny” with a painting entitled “Early Rancheros,” depicting horseback riders meandering through the scenic western trail.

Reagan and Stuckenberg would go on to spend time together riding at the Rancho De Cielo and the Rancheros Vistadores riding club in Santa Ynez, Calif. A first, fateful meeting occurred thanks to a mutual friend.

“[My friend] knew Reagan liked Western Art, and he wanted Reagan to meet me,” said Stuckenberg. “He took me to see him and we went up to the office see Reagan, and I gave him a pen-and-ink bucking horse.”

Stuckenberg smiled at the memory, noting that the governor felt the image harkened back to the “Death Valley Days,” a 1940s-era radio program that depicted the old American West, which also ran as a celebrated televison series till the late ‘70s.

The relationship blossomed and Stuckenberg also presented the Reagans with a 30th wedding anniversary painting depicting Reagan riding Nancy’s horse “No Strings” about a decade later. When Reagan moved into the White House, so did the painting. A 1982 letter from Reagan, hand-written on White House letterhead, reads thoughtfully, “[Nancy and I] are now the fond owners of two ‘Stuckenbergs, both by way of ‘Rancheros’…’ You have pictured the place we love more than any other...

For the complete article see the 02-07-2011 issue.



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