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Charlie Norton - Art of the West

By Johnny D. Boggs 
Originally published by Wild West magazine. Published Online: October 06, 2011 
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'Buffalo Bill came up through the rough ranks of the frontiersmen and went on to be a great showman and promoter'

It was—if you believe the legend—a grand shooting event on the prairie of western Kansas in 1868. William Frederick (Buffalo Bill) Cody, then hunting for the Kansas Pacific Railroad, and Billy Comstock, chief of scouts at Fort Wallace in Kansas, competed for eight hours on horseback to see who could kill the most buffalo.

An excursion train from St. Louis brought out spectators and champagne, which Cody noted, "proved a good drink on a Kansas prairie, and a buffalo hunter was a good man to get away with it." Mounted on his trusty horse Brigham and armed with "Lucretia Borgia," his breech-loading .50–70-caliber Springfield rifle, Cody managed to kill 69 bison. Comstock, riding a favorite horse and carrying a .44-caliber Henry repeater, killed 46.

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The event has its defenders and detractors. Biographer Don Russell accepts it, while Louis S. Warren doubts it happened, although he concedes that Cody likely took part in a number of buffalo-hunting contests—just not in 1868 against Comstock. The only accounts of the event come from Cody and his wife. Comstock never got a chance to confirm or deny it, as Cheyenne Indians killed him later that year.

Fact or fiction, the story is a major part of Buffalo Bill lore and Kansas history, and that's what drew Kansas artist Charlie Norton to depict the event not far from those hunting grounds near Oakley, Kan., in a massive bronze sculpture titled The Birthplace of the Legend.

In 1990 Lewis Evins of Oakley spoke with Norton about creating a bronze that would promote tourism for western Kansas and Oakley by capitalizing on the historical hunt, yet the actual project didn't begin until a decade later. Someone donated land, and residents of Oakley and surrounding areas funded the project.

It took roughly three years to complete, including two maquettes, a bust study, paintings and the actual bronze of Buffalo Bill astride Brigham chasing a bison. The figures are more than 2 1/2-times life size and together weigh more than 9,000 pounds, plus "another ton or so" of stainless steel armature inside the pieces. The Birthplace of the Legend was dedicated in May 2004.

"Buffalo Bill came up through the rough ranks of the frontiersmen and went on to be a great showman and promoter," Norton says of his fascination with Cody. "He created employment for hundreds and was sensitive to humanitarian needs. He played an important part in helping to establish early towns in the West. He preserved the West as most people liked to envision the frontier. His work continues today."

Norton's interest in art came much earlier.

"I have been casting bronze for 38 years," Norton says from his studio in Leoti, Kan. "I have no idea when I first started drawing. It's like breathing—it comes natural. The only art I ever saw as a young man in western Kansas was on calendars. I especially appreciated Charlie Russell and Frederic Remington's work. My training as a farrier taught me a lot about anatomy, and that has been priceless in creating art."

After getting out of the Army in 1966, Norton married and turned his attention to showing horses and creating art. He and wife Pat have called the western Kansas prairie home for nearly 70 years. Last summer, in recognition of four decades of contribution to Western art and the Western way of life, Norton was inducted into the Kansas Cowboy Hall of Fame.

"I learned whatever I could and still made a living for my wife and three kids along the way. My wife, Pat, and I both grew up on the high plains of western Kansas."

He found he had a knack for creating art—sketching, painting and sculpture— and combined history with art, always paying close attention to detail.

"I have always had a great interest in the buffalo and all of those early cultures that lived off of them," he says. "I have been a full-time student of history and art my entire life. Most people think of me as a Western artist, but I also do portraits and wildlife. When you paint or sculpt scenes of the West, you have to include the wildlife of that area."

He and Pat enjoy plein air painting, but sculpting is Norton's favorite medium.

Creating The Birthplace of the Legend, however, had its challenges.

"A monumental size sculpture starts with a good design and composition, so that the sculpture will flow and be strong from all angles," he says. "Lots of sketches and measurements are a must. Multiply those measurements to the desired size and build an armature. Small mistakes in small sculptures can pose a problem when pointed up into a monument size sculpture. It will stand out and be wrong. Therefore, it must be corrected. Size does create its own problems—far beyond what one might expect."

The payoff made it all worthwhile.

"The reward from doing such a monument is quite gratifying when you can see how a bronze of this monumental size can create its own life and following," he says. "After the large piece was welded, chased and rolled out of the foundry for sandblasting, the bronze really came into its own. It was like the Trojan horse had arrived. From that day forward the sculpture really had its own life. It continues to grow. People continue to come. The sculpture is like a magnet—it draws you in."

See more of Charlie Norton's work online. The Birthplace of the Legend is in Oakley, Kan., south of I-70 at 2nd Street and U.S. 83.



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