Skip to main content

Beauty in bronze

Starting at age 4, Clay Gant has spent most of his life working with horses, as a farrier, exhibitor, owner and trainer. In 2000, at the age of 46, he decided to try his hand at sculpting them instead.

He’d taken no art classes. Never studied sculpture techniques. Had no experience in carving clay and casting bronze. But he had an entrepreneurial mindset, the courage to try something new and the faith that he could succeed.

“I’m 100% self-taught,” Clay said. “But I don’t consider myself to be an artist. I’m an artist in training. Actually, I’m a businessman who happens to be able to sculpt, and I’m still learning every day.”

He and his wife, Betty, operate Cowboy Bronze from their Rusty Spur Ranch in Cross Timbers, Mo., where they have built a reputation for creating exquisite bronze-plated statues that are coveted prizes and cherished pieces of art. By design, they focus on awards for equine shows and breed associations, inspired by the industry that gave them both careers.

“We showed hard and were on the road for many years, but we got to the point where we realized that the 401K for horse trainers is not very good, I don’t care how talented you are,” Clay said. “We needed a new avenue. Being around all these shows, we knew that the equine clientele was looking for something different when it came to their awards—something that was more detailed and better quality but still affordable. I had an idea of what that could be, but at the time, it didn’t exist. We made it exist.”

Clay’s vision didn’t materialize overnight. The first sculptures he completed never saw the light of day. “They were terrible,” he admitted. But he studiously worked to hone his craft and develop proprietary processes to achieve the result he imagined.

Turns out, he had natural talent for sculpting with an incredible eye for detail and an uncanny aptitude for capturing his subject’s movement and personality. Clay credits this ability to lessons learned from his parents.

“My dad taught me how to work with horses. My mom taught me how to love horses,” Clay said. “He was a cowboy’s cowboy from Colorado, an entrepreneur-type person who had me helping him break horses when I was 6 or 7 years old. She was the creative one who worked on my imagination. That’s where all this comes from. They showed me that anything was possible. You start with an idea. You fulfill what somebody needs. And you make it happen. That’s the American dream.”

Once Clay started turning out pieces he was pleased with, he and Betty took their venture on the road, setting up booths at the same horse shows where they previously competed. Their intricately detailed yet cost-effective awards were a hit, and business began to boom.

“Our name, Cowboy Bronze, is based on the idea that any cowboy can afford them,” Clay said. “That’s possible because of our manufacturing process, which is pure bronze plating over a resin core, but I do it differently from others in this industry. My technique keeps all the tiniest details intact so that it looks like high quality without the high cost.”

Even though the Gants have retired from showing and no longer have horses, they said Cowboy Bronze allows them to remain active in the equine community.
“We’re still winning. We’re still in that arena,” Clay said. “Every time someone wins one of our sculptures, it means something.”

Recently, Clay veered away from his equine focus to work with the new Missouri Agricultural Hall of Fame, which commissioned him to create the award for inductees. He collaborated with Hall of Fame committee members to design and produce the piece, which needed to represent Missouri’s diverse agricultural landscape.
Karri Wilson, Missouri State Fair Foundation executive director who spearheaded the project, owns and shows reining horses and was familiar with the Cowboy Bronze name. However, she didn’t realize the business was located here in Missouri.

“We wanted the award to be special, classy and top-of-the-line,” Karri said. “I knew Cowboy Bronze did really nice awards for horse show events, but I figured they were located out West somewhere. When I Googled the name, I couldn’t believe they were in Cross Timbers. I gave Clay a call, and he agreed to take on the commission. It just all came together, and the result is a truly unique award that is made right here in Missouri.”

From start to finish, the project took Clay about 60 hours to complete. The final design features a beef bull as the focal point of the statue surrounded by a base of wheat and corn. The bull, Karri said, embodies the strength and power of the state’s agricultural community. The wheat represents life, prosperity and regeneration, while the corn symbolizes connection to the land and the honesty, faith and stewardship of Missouri farmers. The award will only be given to Hall of Fame inductees and will not be available for sale, she added.

Clay didn’t have to look far to find the perfect model for the sculpture. He scouted the pastures of his neighboring farm, Lucas Oil Ranch, where a big, bold Simmental bull was waiting for his time to shine. The artist named him “Curley.”

“I knew this piece needed to have personality,” Clay said. “I couldn’t find what I was looking for doing Google searches for bulls. So, I went next door and found Curley. Actually, Curley found me. He had just the look and attitude I wanted.”

No matter what type of sculpture he’s creating, Clay begins with a wooden block, around which he bends and twists wires into the desired design. From there, he covers the form with clay and begins manipulating it into shape. Once the rough structure is in place, he starts carving details into the clay.

He won’t share all his secrets, but Clay said the process from that point involves creating a silicone mold of the statue, pouring resin to form the core, and then plating it with pure bronze.

“This method makes it much less expensive and lighter than a solid bronze piece, but there’s no difference to the eye,” Clay explained. “It’s all about the weight and cost. Plus, everything from the lump of clay to the finished product is done right here. All the materials are 100% American-made, and that also appeals to my customers.”

Custom pieces like the Hall of Fame award only make up a fraction of Cowboy Bronze’s business. Most of what Clay and Betty manufacture are standard catalog pieces representing different equine breeds and events. They also offer an airbrushed paint finish to match certain breeds or even an individual horse. Their catalog includes more than 120 products—and counting.

“Curley was the first bull I’ve ever sculpted, and it was a challenge,” Clay said. “But I’m trying to branch out and do different things. If you don’t push yourself, you won’t get better.”

In that spirit, Clay said his next dream is to create sculptures for the fine art world. He said he relishes the idea of having freedom to choose his own subjects and time to craft them at his own pace instead of just fulfilling requests from customers.

“I believe life is like surfing,” Clay said. “You take your surfboard out, look at the ocean, and decide where you’re going to land. Then you paddle out, and the wind changes. Suddenly, you’re going in a different direction. You’ve got two choices. Crash and burn or surf where it takes you. And that’s where I am right now. I’m surfing.”  

For more information on Cowboy Bronze, visit online at cowboybronze.com or call (417) 998-6581.

CLICK TO READ MORE FROM THE 2024 MAY ISSUE OF TODAY'S FARMER MAGAZINE.

  • Created on .
  • Hits: 246