The trail to the top of the Western Art world is steep and narrow. It is littered with obstacles, beset with sheer drop-offs, and hindered by unexpected twists and turns.
Sculptor Jeff Wolf has ridden that trail for more than twenty-five years and reached heights few artists attain. Along the way he has placed bronzes in prominent museums and permanent exhibits, in prestigious private collections, and on display in public venues. He has been bestowed with honors and awards, recognized in juried competitions, and called upon to teach and demonstrate.
Jeff made—and continues—the journey on a mount called persistence. He has lived by the old cowboy maxim that it doesn’t matter how many times you get bucked off, but what counts is getting back on—brushing off adversity, dusting off disappointment, climbing back in the saddle and continuing the journey.
While the ride can be a lonely one, it is not a ride Jeff makes alone. Riding with him along the way are talent and skill, creativity and vision, experience and expertise. And, of course, persistence—keeping ever after the quest to not only depict the West in art, but to capture the emotion, the motivation, the underlying aesthetics of ordinary life and extraordinary events.
The importance of persistence was instilled in Jeff at an early age. Jeff excelled in everything he put his mind to except school. Dyslexia—virtually undiscovered at the time—made reading nearly impossible. But that didn’t stop him from graduating from high school and attending three years of college on scholarships, and eventually teaching himself to read.
In high school, Jeff became a champion livestock judge and earned a silver medal at the National FFA convention, earning what was at the time the highest score ever recorded—98 out of 100—in the cattle grading division. He was also a Champion rodeo cowboy in High School, college, and a top competitor in professional rodeo, competed mainly in the bareback and bull riding events, as well as saddle bronc riding, team roping, and steer wrestling.
Through it all, art sustained him. From an early age he was compelled to create. “My gift chose me, I didn’t choose it,” he says. Jeff’s story as a sculptor started at age five when he received modeling clay for Christmas. His hands and heart went to work to mold into the clay the world he saw around him. An early work, a buffalo carved from a bar of soap, earned his first recognition when published in the pages of Western Horseman magazine.
With a constant driving force from within, combined with a wild imagination and insatiable desire to learn and discover, Jeff’s childhood and youth would inform his art. Along with his gift of creation he was given, in his words, “a great gift of upbringing.” Raised on a ranch in the mouth of Goshen Canyon, located south of Utah Lake, he had both the opportunities and responsibilities of any ranch kid. “I lived amongst the local wildlife, learned the art of handling cattle and horses, and had the fortunate opportunity to listen to the stories of real old-time cowboys, memories of which remain ingrained in my mind.” Adding to the fascination, Wolf says, was “spending most of my days, when not working on the ranch, running wild and free in the mountains, along the creeks, building hideouts, and watching wildlife or hunting.”
Even anatomy lessons were in the offing. Jeff’s grandfather owned and operated a small meat packing company, which gave Jeff the opportunity to see firsthand animal anatomy from the inside out. “Grandpa used to take the front or rear leg of a beef carcass and move it as if it were walking and explain how each muscle and every bone made that movement possible.” This led Jeff to study every movement a person or animal made, trying to decipher the bones and muscles working to make that movement possible. “I developed the habit when riding for cows to ride behind another rider and watch the horse and rider as they moved as one in harmony. A nice moving horse and a true horseman is a symphony of visual music.” This curiosity and fascination with anatomy turned Jeff into a recognized master of capturing motion in sculpture.
And there were other lessons to learn.
Jeff says, “I know firsthand what it feels like to climb down onto the back of a bull or bucking horse, know the rush adrenaline and the explosion from the chute. I know what it’s like to sit for hour watching mule deer feed, coming so close that I could feel their breath on my hand. I have experienced the fear and drama of a stampede. And I have lived in the wild, providing for myself amongst the ghosts of Indians.”
From his father, Jeff learned the ways of cattle and horses. “I remember one experience as if it were today,” he says. “Dad and I rode up on a cow and calf who hadn’t seen a human being all summer. She was one of those who enjoyed hiding out in country where she wasn’t easy to find. We saw each other at about the same time. Her head came up and her ears came forward, moving back and forth determining which route to take for escape. Dad said, ‘Let’s just let her look at us for a while.’ As we sat there, he explained every thought that was running through that cow’s mind by the way she her ears worked back and forth, the short, soft mooing sounds she made to her calf, her posture, and the way she looked away then back at us.
“Then Dad and I rode closer, stopping every few feet so as not to pose a threat, and from a direction that would move her in the intended direction. All this, to avoid a wild chase and the possibility of losing her altogether. Within half an hour we, the cow, and the calf walked off the mountain and into the holding pasture any mishap. These are the kinds of things that have the greatest impact on my work today.”
Throughout childhood and youth, Jeff’s gift refuse to let him rest. He had to constantly be creating something. Persistence kept him sculpting, even as other interests competed for time and attention. “I didn’t sculpt a lot some years but I did keep after it. I seemed to know from my earliest years that sculpting would be my ultimate life and livelihood and I was in no hurry to get there. I was having too much fun experiencing life.”
After retiring from professional rodeo, Jeff’s desire to sculpt gradually increased, fed by those very experiences.
“If I haven’t personally lived the scene, I imagine myself in the time, place, and moment and visualize what it would have been like to actually be a participant. This might involve hours of research until that image or scene is fully and clearly formed in my mind. The concept then become like a photograph imprinted in my consciousness, becomes a vivid image and begs to be given life.”
But three-dimensional photographic-type depictions of those scenes is not what Jeff strives for in his art.
“For me,” Jeff says, “art goes far beyond mere depiction or precise rendering. I feel that true art should tell a story, put you in a place or a moment in time that stimulates the imagination and arouses the soul. It’s not about the subject matter, concept, or idea; it’s about discovery and stretching the boundaries of creativity. I strive to sculpt an experience. This is what makes me tick. Discovering how mass and negative space can be used and manipulated to become a vital part of the design. Using mirroring, and mimicking shapes to keep the eye roving around the subject to tell a story. Years of devotion to the study of art principles, combined with the determination to produce works that are worthy of the title of fine art is the motivational drive behind my work. That’s is the visual tune I dance to.”
It’s not an easy dance to learn. It takes passion. Perseverance. And persistence. But those qualities, combined with an imaginative and creative mind pay off for Jeff. Then, it’s time for the work of the mind and heart to guide the hands of the sculptor.
“Once the physical work begins, the piece often times takes on its own personality. I then become merely the tool that gives life to the dictation of the piece. Those times produce my finest works.
“Finding ways to create the illusion of life in something like wet hair, rushing water, speed of movement, drama of action, sheer fabric flowing around the beauty of the female figure, wind whipping a mane of a stallion, or a reflection in water in a bas relief is the stimulation behind my work,” Jeff says. “I work to compose the design so that every aspect has purpose. Every line leads to another, every plane reflects light or casts a shadow for depth and dimension.
Balance points create harmony and mass builds strength and stability to create a realistic illusion of movement. The synergy of opposing forces coming together and pulling apart allows me to create a greater effect, a stronger vision. My feeling is that every work I create has its own distinct personality and character. Therefore, it requires its own texture or multiple textures unique to itself as well as the composition and design that best reflects the story that is being presented.
“A well-rendered pair of wrinkled and cracked work boots with worn soles and tattered laces, lying side by side as if just taken off the tired feet of the owner or even discarded will form a picture in the viewer’s mind. Some may see only a pair of boots. But others will see the life of the man who wore them— tired and wrinkled like the boots, exhausted from a hard day’s labor and glad to get those old boots off his feet. Some may see dad or grandpa. Some may see a farmer plowing a field behind two mules. It really doesn’t matter what the viewer envisions, it’s the fact that a vision has been created. That is what I strive for in every work I create.”
And so Jeff Wolf went to work. And he worked. Then worked some more to blaze his own trail to the artistic heights. Making the climb, and maintaining the heights requires persistence. Over time, collectors become familiar with an artist’s background and reputation. But reputation only goes so far. If the work isn’t up to snuff, one can never expect to create or maintain demand with an inferior product. But Jeff’s persistence paid off.
In 1990, art collector Ann Heckbert discovered Jeff’s sculpture at an art show in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Ann and her husband Jim, owner of Garret Gallery, approached Jeff about showing his work. By 1991, Jeff’s life as a professional sculptor was underway and has earned been his livelihood ever since. Jeff credits Jim and Ann for launching a career that has earned him a reputation as one of the finest western sculptors of our time.
Jeff’s first national juried show, the George Phippen Memorial Art Show in Prescott, Arizona, earned the artist the three highest awards: Best of Show, Best in Category and People’s Choice. He has won or placed in practically every juried art show he has participated in since, and may be the only living sculptor to have won Best of Show and People’s Choice awards in six genres of Western art: Wildlife, Figural, Rodeo, Equine, Western, and Native American.
Finally, while Jeff is well aware that gifts such as his are given to individuals, the trail to success isn’t one you ride alone. Persistence is often aided by the encouragement and assistance of others. He says, “The journey to the top would have been impossible if it weren’t for the help and support of family, friends, my collectors, admirers and especially my wife Jennifer.” Jeff also believes gifts are to be shared. So he now shares his talents and knowledge with fellow artists, students of the arts, and charitable foundations. He teaches workshops, lectures at schools, and sculpts at public events. Donations of time, talent, and art have generated over one million dollars for charitable causes.
God-given talent, real life experience, insatiable desire to be the best, and persistence have immortally molded and cast forever the name Jeff Wolf into the world of Western art and sculpture.
The portfolio of Jeff Wolf’s work is extensive, and his name is tied to some of the most prestigious collections, galleries, and museums. Persistence has placed his art in national and international collections including:
- Simons Collection, Cayman Islands
- Ryder Collection, Ryder Trucking
- Renn and Marie Zaphiropoulos Collection (inventor of the color tube for television and, later, the developer of laser printing)
- Meredith Hodges Collection and National Mule Museum, Loveland, Colorado
- Mr. and Mrs. Robert Henderson
- Jim Terry (former CEO of Coca-Cola)
- Jack Williams (former president of Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines)
- Elton Salinas (owner of Elton’s Clothier, Las Vegas, Nevada)
- Richard and Carole Kreamer (Board of Directors, American Airlines)
- David and Pam Furr (Gaston Law)
- Jim and Ann Heckbert (Burg Simpson Law & Humble Ranch)
- Steve and Mary Kay Larsen
- Lori Wilkinson (Brown & Brown Insurance of Nevada, Waymark Insurance Services)
- Richard Sanders (president of Kobalt Music Group)
- Buck Taylor (artist and actor)
- Jane Blalock (Hall of Fame Golfer)
- Jim Palmer (Hall of Fame Baseball Player)
Jeff has filled commissions for sculpture for:
- Susan G. Koman Foundation
- T.A.P.S. Foundation
- Habitat for Humanity
- American Lung Association
- National Retriever Club and National Amateur Retriever Club
- American Airlines
- Cystic Fibrosis Foundation
- American Bucking Bull, Inc.
- Cistercian Preparatory School Hillary award
- Rodeo Champions monument, Gooding ID
- And several cities, corporate executives, farmers, ranchers, sportsmen, families, and friends.
Jeff’s talent has introduced him to an array of TV, movie, and sports celebrities, including:
- Kimberlin Brown
- Dylan Bruno
- Gordon Clapp
- Lenny Clarke
- Jeff Dunham,
- Grant Goodeve
- Chris Harrison
- Dennis Haskins
- Sandra Hess
- Brad Johnson
- Wendie Malick,
- Ron Masak,
- Marc McClure
- Rob Moran
- Eloise Mumford
- Eric Christian Olsen
- Jason Priestly
- Perrey Reeves
- James Sikking,
- Buck Taylor
- Steve Thomas
- Michael Trucco.
- John York
- Ian Ziering
Musicians, such as:
- Aaron Barker (musician and Hall of Fame songwriter)
- John Cafferty (of The Beaver Brown Band)
- Kevin Chalfant (of 707, The Storm, and Journey)
- Gavin Degraw
- Randall Hall (of Lynyrd Skynyrd)
- David Jenkens (of Pablo Cruise)
- Chris Ledoux
- Alex Ligertwood (of Santana)
- Gary Morris
- Hootie and the Blowfish
- Michael Martin Murphy
- Henry Paul (formerly of Black Hawk)
Sports champions, including:
- Matt Bahr
- Jane Blalock
- Larry Brown
- Brant Boyer
- Scott Hamilton
- Billy Kidd
- Jim Lonborg
- Chris McCarron
- Jay Miller
- Jim Palmer
- Gale Sayers
- Wayne Wong
And, of course, a host of rodeo champions, cowboys, ranchers, artists working in all mediums, and great people from all walks of life.
Other honors include:
- Selected as the sculptor at the 2000 Super Bowl for the Larry Brown Foundation.
- Featured artist at the Days of ‘47 Utah Heritage Art Show, 2000
- Commissioned to sculpt the six-time Labrador Retriever field trial champion and the Female Labrador Retriever Field Trials World Champion, owned by Fred Kampo, Oshkosh, Wisconsin
- Designed and sculpted many awards, personal tributes, and memorials such as the Huntsville Town Veterans Memorial Monument.
- Honored as one of Utah’s Most Fabulous People by Utah Valley magazine, 2012
Featured in a host of magazines, such as:
- Cowboy Magazine
- Ranch & Reata
- Range Magazine
- Rodeo News
- Western Horseman
- Western Writers of America Roundup Magazine