Joseph sculptor works on Lewis and Clark commission

Joseph artist J. Shirly Bothum works on a sculpture of Sacajawea, while his finished clay-and-foam figures of explorers William Clark and Meriwether Lewis look on in the background. (Photo by Elane Dickenson)

In a riverside studio next to his home on Russell Lane northeast of Joseph, sculptor J. Shirly Bothum carefully carves away some of the clay and foam that forms the armature of a life-sized likeness of Sacajawea. "I want to put in more detail," he says, slicing off a sliver of clay covered foam hair.

Bothum has been working for months on a three-piece bronze of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and Sacajawea after winning a very competitive commission from the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Committee in Lewiston, Idaho, in February.

The job was especially sweet for Bothum because he lived in the Lewiston area for about 20 year, moving there to break and train horses for a rancher as a young man. An earlier commission of a fountain of Sacajawea by the artist already stands in Lewiston's Pioneer Park.

Bothum's new piece is scheduled to be installed in an open space at the foot of busy 21st St. in November. With the original sculptures of Clark and Lewis already sent to Parks Bronze foundry in Enterprise for the wax mold making process, and Sacajawea nearing completion, Bothum is confident he'll meet the deadline, despite the finishing and casting work ahead.

The major commission was for $60,000 (plus $15,000 of in-kind donations by Bothum in the form of donated labor). Out of the commission payment he also pays for the cost of all the foundry and bronze work.

"I'm working at minimum wage," Bothum grumbled. He said he couldn't estimate the number of hours he's put in on the piece so far. "I'd have to go by weeks or months."

The observance of the 200th anniversary of Lewis and Clark's extraordinary 28-month journey of exploration starts in 2003, and Bothum predicts that three million people will travel to Lewiston - where the expedition camped both to and from its way to the Pacific Ocean - during the event.

"I hope to bring 10 percent of them to Joseph," the artist said.

Bothum has spent his life between two passions - cowboying and being an artist.

"I was interested in art in high school, but decided I'd rather be a cowboy than an artist. When I got older and stiffer, I decided art was a better deal," said Bothum about his twin careers. His very successful art career has now been underway some 25 years.

Bothum learned to ride in Kansas, one of eight sons of a sharecropper, and bought his own horse when the family moved to rural Woodburn, Oregon, when he was a youth. He started breaking and shoeing horses when he was 14 years old. He worked on ranches for years in the Lewiston area, on the Grande Ronde River and for a year in the Imnaha canyon.

He also started young as a rodeo rider, competing as a saddle bronc rider at rodeos all the way between Cheyenne and Calgary, including the Pendleton Round-Up. One year he was saddle bronc champ at Chief Joseph Days.

Forty years later he serves as chute boss and as slack time announcer for that same rodeo.

Along the way Bothum got married to a former Chief Joseph Days Court princess, Judy Stockdale. The couple has three daughters, and are now the grandparents of six, including twin 9-year-old boys who show early promise as team ropers.

His family says even in his cowboy days Bothum was always drawing and doodling on telephone books or whatever he got his hands on.

Bothum has specialized in sculpture about Western subjects, especially horses. His life-sized "Tracking the Intruder," of a Nez Perce on horseback is one of the public works on Joseph Main St. "I used to do some paintings, but hopefully they are all burned up," he said.

After one ranch job ended, he remembers, "I started doing some pieces (sculptures) for my self, and different people liked them," he said. Bothum recalls that some professor saw his work and encouraged him to become an artist.

For the past 20 or so years J. Shirly Bothum - always a cowboy at heart - has enjoyed a very successful art career. The artist is mostly self taught, but before moving to Joseph in 1988 when the art community was just starting to grow, he attended art classes in Scottsdale, Ariz., off and on for three years. He is considered one of the leading horse sculptors in the country, and teaches equine sculpture classes when he has time.

Among his many works are 15 different world class race horses, including world champion "Cigar"; a thoroughbred racer commissioned by actor Robert Urich; horse head portraits for the Texas Classic quarter horse race for the last five years; a dog and mountain lion piece commissioned by the Museum of the Dog in Kansas City, Mo. Most of his sculptures are by commission, and his work can be found across the country.

The artist's work can be seen locally at The Gallery at Joseph, Ltd.

Bothum hasn't entirely turned his back on his cowboy past. He's involved in the Chief Joseph Days rodeo committee, still owns a horse and takes part in eight to 10 ranch brandings every year. "Other people go golfing, I go to brandings," he said.

The artist sees some similarities between his two careers, especially in their up and down financial nature. "It's chickens one day and feathers the next, just like when I was a cowboy."

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