“I always knew the subject,” he says of the horses and cowboys he depicts, “but you get better at composition and proportion.”–more–>
It is the attention to detail in each of his pieces that the eye recognizes immediately. From the drape of a cinch hanging low, to the harness buckles on the rigging for a plow horse or the tip of a cowboy’s hat, Harmon gets the details exactly right.
This spring, Harmon was awarded first place in a large field of artists for a recent commissioned piece, “Gold Fever.” The 45th Western Art Show, held by the Phippen Museum, is one of the top ten gathering places in America for buyers of Western art, and artists must be juried into the show. “Gold Fever,” which depicts a miner panning for gold with his mule, was Harmon’s second first-place here, following on the heels of “The Mustang,” which won in 2013. “The Mustang” was also chosen to be included in the Phippen’s permanent collection.
Jim and Nancy Mackay [Left], who commissioned “Gold Fever,” spent their careers in mining and have followed Harmon’s work for years. They collected six earlier pieces before commissioning the latest one.
When he’s creating a piece, Harmon enjoys getting his customers involved in the process. For example, Jim Mackay noted that the shovel Harmon had placed on the mule’s saddle in “Gold Fever” would more likely have been right next to the miner as he panned for gold, so Harmon moved it.
For that piece, Harmon also talked to an old saddle maker, who noted that miners always wore a “poke” or small leather sack around their neck to store their gold dust, making it harder for someone to steal it. Harmon’s research also turned up more details specific to the subject: a bell around the mule’s neck so the miner could track him if he wandered off, and the clothing worn by the miner, including the distinctive high-top boots with “mule straps” for pulling them on.
“I like it when I can get these kind of details from my clients and through the research I do,” Harmon said.
When the first bronze casting came back from the foundry, it didn’t have quite the patina that the Mackays were looking for, so after discussing options, Harmon had the foundry add a touch more blue in the water and more black in the sediment. When the second piece came back from the foundry, Jim Mackay liked it so much, he purchased a second bronze to ship to his brother in Canada, who also spent a career in mining.
Another commissioned piece, “Cowboy Tech,” took first place at the Bosque Art Classic, held in Clifton, Texas, in September. This year’s competition included 236 pieces of original art by 136 talented artists.
This August, Harmon walked away with the prestigious Steel Dust Award at the America’s Horse in Art Show held in Amarillo, Texas. Each year, the show highlights pieces from more than 40 world-renowned Western artists representing a wide range of mediums, from pen and ink to oils. The Steel Dust award, named after the famous horse that epitomized perfection in motion and launched the quarter horse in America, recognizes the complete body of work by an artist, represented by a single entry.
Harmon chose to submit “Coolin’ Off,” which came from an idea he had been toying with for some time. When an old friend and long-time Gila County rancher, Duane Reece, suggested the same idea, Harmon knew he had to do it. True cowboying comes down to lots of little things that might escape the notice of the casual observer, but for those who make a living at it, something like the small act of loosening the cinches and lifting the saddle to cool off a horse’s back is a familiar practice.
Since 2004, Harmon has produced 29 sculptures, ranging from a series of miniatures capturing the burro’s role in Western life to a life-size statue recognizing a beloved radio man in Corsicana, Texas. He received his first award for “Breakin’ Daylight” in 2009 and then won first place in 2011 at the 7th Annual Western Artists show with “Switchback,” depicting two cowboys bringing a wild bull down a mountain. It’s one of Harmon’s favorite pieces, stemming from a true story that his uncle told him as a boy.
Harmon has been recognized for his work by the Western Artists of America and Cowboy Artists of America, as well as the Phippen Foundation and Museum. This year, Harmon has picked up three prestigious awards, winning at every show he’s attended.
Last year, Harmon stepped outside his normal subject matter when he crafted a bust of a Lakota warrior – the result of a workshop he took and an experiment that became a finished piece. He showed it during the Hidden in the Hills Art Show in Cave Creek, and says the piece sold so well that he’s thinking of producing another along the same lines.
“I’m pretty consistent at being slow,” Harmon chuckles. “And I don’t do this full time.” Harmon worked on ranches here and in New Mexico from the age of 9 and went on to become a licensed contractor. He still runs a few cattle on his cousin’s ranch, but he’s retired from “anything he doesn’t want to do.” Harmon says he spends about 20-30 hours a week in the studio located behind his house and produces about two sculptures per year.
Harmon and his wife of 50-plus years, Frankie, have two grown sons who live nearby. He and Frankie now travel to just four shows annually, and they ship work to four more shows each year.
“When we first started out, we were traveling to quite a few shows,” Harmon said, shaking his head. “When you first start out, you really have to get your pieces out there.”
Frankie mostly runs the business side of Harmon’s life as a bronze artist, and together they’ve navigated the many challenges of taking his talent to the marketplace.
The market for traditional Western art is changing, and Harmon and other artists are trying to figure out how to keep pace with the market while remaining true to their craft. A group of them recently met at a lodge in Moab, Utah. They each brought a few of their pieces to critique, and they talked about the market and shared strategies. Truth be told, no one has a clear strategy, Harmon says, because pinpointing what buyers want is an elusive pursuit.
A slideshow of Harmon Bronzes is not complete, but offers a look at the range of work he’s done.
For a complete view please visit www.harmonbronze.com
Writer, photographer. Passionate foodie, lover of good books and storytelling. Lives in Globe. Plays in the historic district. Travels when possible.