Stories of the West: Artist Curt Mattson
Writer Sue Kern-Fleischer
Photographer Bryan Black
It’s a bit off the beaten path, but a trip to Curt Mattson’s studio 9 during the 20th annual Hidden in the Hills Studio Tour and Sale is well worth it, especially if you love the explosive action of buckaroos and the lore and grandeur of the West.
Set on two and a half acres with Cave Creek Regional Park as a backdrop, Mattson’s home and studio embody the spirit of the West with breathtaking sculptures, evocative oil and watercolor paintings and freehand charcoal drawings, each one telling a unique story about cowboys, cowgirls, horses, cattle and life on the ranch.
“Cowboy art is inherently narrative, and I strive to bring people into the contemporary and historic worlds of the buckaroo, horsemen and horsewomen,” Mattson says, adding that his goal is to enrich the lives of others. “I’m only successful if my work is uplifting, compelling and brings beauty into other people’s lives.”
Growing up on a ranch with 50 horses, Mattson began riding at the age of 5. He credits his ranching experience with helping him achieve precise composition for each original piece he creates.
“Whether I’m sculpting, painting or drawing, I’m able to capture the movements and rhythm of the horses, cattle and buckaroos because my life has been centered around that world,” he says.
Always pushing himself to improve and refine his skills, Mattson has a very strict daily regimen. Each morning, he and his wife and business manager, Wendy, take “the boys,” horses Trucker and Quinn, out for a ride. Then he draws in the morning in one studio, sculpts in the afternoon in a second studio and finishes at night by painting in the same studio where he draws.
Drawing is a fundamental skill that Mattson works hard to perfect through his freehand charcoal drawings.
“I work very hard at it,” he says, adding that a good story is important, but it’s not enough. “I have tremendous respect for the great illustrators who were disciplined in their studies. Strong design is critical for art to be excellent. My artistic challenge is to create work that is so compelling, no one can walk by it.”
Best known for his sculptures, Mattson has won numerous prestigious awards, including the Cyrus Dallin Award for Best Sculpture at the Quest for the West Art Show and Sale at the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis; the Cowboy Artists of America Founders’ Award; Best of Show at the Phippen Museum Fine Art Show in Prescott; and Best of Show at the National Western Fine Art Exhibition and Sale in San Dimas, California.
“I have a very high view of sculpture,” Mattson says. “It’s a long-lived medium, and I owe it to my collectors to create work that stands the test of time.”
While Mattson is a great storyteller, he’s very particular about which stories he sculpts.
“A story has to be sculptural and worthy of a bronze,” he says. “A great bronze will tell a good story and be accurate 100 years from now. Not only does it have to be anatomically correct, its mass, texture, light and design must work together to tell an accurate story.”
Walking into his sculpture studio, one is struck by the beauty of finished bronzes on display. Propped up near his sculpture stand is a guitar and his black Nevada snap-brim cowboy hat. Certificates of awards and honors cover part of the wall, and in the corner is a mirror.
“The mirror helps me assess the reverse image of a piece I’m working on,” he says. “It’s important to keep a fresh eye as you progress with your work so you can make corrections.”
Much of his work focuses on showing how smart horses are and how well the horseman relates to them. “I don’t think we know one-tenth of how smart they are,” he says of the horses.
While some other artists work from photos, Mattson depends on his innate knowledge to sculpt.
“I’ve been immersed in this way of life, so I know the difference between a cowboy team roping and one who works on the ranch,” he says. “The gear is different and even their behavior is different. On the ranch, the buckaroos work hard to keep the cattle quiet. That’s not something you’d know if you’re taking photos during a rodeo.”
He is most proud of his breakthrough pieces where suddenly, something clicks. Two recent examples include “Over The Moon” and “Souvenir Collectors.” Other examples include “Wild Horses, Wilder Women” and “Test of Wills.”
On average, he produces limited editions of nine bronzes, and on occasion, he’ll have the foundry make limited editions of 20 for smaller pieces.
“I try to keep the price points where my work is affordable, but at the same time as close to one-of-a-kind as possible,” he says.
While Mattson had dabbled in watercolors in the 1990s, he began painting seriously with the medium a few years ago after seeing famed watercolorist Edward Borein’s paintings on display at the Cowboy Hall of Fame.
“I’ve always loved his work, and I felt learning this new, challenging medium would teach me to see differently, which is vital for innovation,” he says.
Soon after, Mattson expanded his skills to include oil painting, pushing himself to try a different medium that was technically opposite of painting with watercolors.
“Oil paintings have always been a big part of cowboy history and they are more marketable, but I’m more passionate about working in watercolor,” he says. “They have a feel you can’t get with any other medium.”
Mattson will exhibit new sculptures, paintings and drawings during the Hidden in the Hills tour, including new limited edition watercolor slates that start at $50. Prices for his original fine art reflect his breadth of work, ranging from just a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars. Visitors to Mattson’s studio will also have the chance to meet his guest artist, jeweler Beth Benowich.
“Cowboy art is part of our country’s DNA; horsemanship is better now than it’s ever been, and it’s an exciting time to view and own Western art,” Mattson says. “There’s so much depth in the stories, and cowboy art holds up against every genre of art, if it’s excellent.”
The 20th annual Hidden in the Hills Studio Tour and Sale takes place during the last two weekends of November (November 18-20 and 25-27). A signature event of the nonprofit Sonoran Arts League, Hidden in the Hills features 188 artists in 47 studio locations throughout the scenic Desert Foothills communities of Cave Creek, Carefree and North Scottsdale.