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An eager Indian woman and her curious daughter anticipate "The Return of the Hunters." (Courtesy of Curtis Fort, Bronzes of the West)

‘The grass is good,
it’s spring, the weather’s right, you’ve had a long cold winter, but now it’s raining
—all those kind of things that make you feel good’

A northern Plains Indian woman watches eagerly for a hunting party’s return to camp while her daughter, hiding partly behind the mom and clutching a doll behind her back, looks on in curiosity. You don’t see the returning men or the village tepees—that is, until you notice the scene depicted on the base of the 25-inch-tall sculpture—but the expressions on the faces of mom and daughter tell the story.

Return of the Hunters, a new bronze edition of 25, captures a peaceful spring moment, the sort that appeals to Tatum, N.M., sculptor Curtis Fort. “We all like the wild shooting and all that stuff, but this is a piece I can relate to,” Fort explains in his cowboy drawl. “The grass is good, it’s spring, the weather’s right, you’ve had a long cold winter, but now it’s raining—all those kind of things that make you feel good. There are no enemies coming over the hill, as far as we know, and they’ve just decided to get some fat deer, and two or three went back in the hills.”

Fort lives on his childhood ranch in eastern New Mexico amid cattle country often short on rainfall and hard on ranchers. “When these plains get drouthed out, there’s nothing more boring or tougher looking,” he says. Rendering scenes like this make the sculptor, and many of his customers, happy.

“It makes you feel good,” he says, “when people look at it and say, ‘Curtis, I look up at that every day, and it gives me a great feeling, even if it’s in the middle of winter, or if we’re in a drouth. I remember the good times.’”

Fort didn’t intend on becoming a sculptor. His plan was to be a cowhand and rancher like his dad (now 97 and still living on the ranch). Fort earned a range management—not art—degree from New Mexico State University, but he did fiddle around with clay sculpture. He was working on the Vermejo Park Ranch in northern New Mexico, and sculpting animal and cowboy figures, when Smithsonian profiled Fort and his work. His artistic career took off, and after more than 30 years he’s still sculpting professionally—depicting ranch life, wildlife, and historical and contemporary subjects.

Although known for cowboy scenes, Fort does quite a few Indian sculptures, focusing on Cheyenne, Lakota and Crow subjects. Of course he’s familiar with cowboys, cattle and horses. For Indians, especially those from the northern Plains, he relies on plenty of research—“I love books,” he says— and finds inspiration by studying such masters as Charles Russell. “Who cannot get a chill when they see a good reproduction of When Sioux and Blackfoot Meet and some of those other paintings [Russell] did?” he asks. Or, perhaps, when you look at Fort’s When the Bugle Fell Silent.

Fort likes to render scenes that “tell a story” and is a sucker for history. “I like to put history in a piece,” he says. “But it’s like putting too much matting on a picture—you can overdo it. I found out doing sculpture, you can get authentic in the clothing, but if you can capture a feel, a feeling, where there’s some feel to it, that’s the big thing. That’s the biggest comment I get. ‘I feel happy.’”

Fort hasn’t forgotten his cowboy roots, whether sculpting or cowboying. “Branding calves, fixing windmills—I was raised doing that,” he says. “I like doing it.”

After his mother and stepmother died, Curtis and wife Carol moved back home to be near his father. “I’ve got to live in some neat places, but we moved back here to the plains to help Daddy with his stuff,” he says. “I’ll be the first to tell you that when I read a magazine article about some artist that shows some guy’s studio up in the mountains, I think, ‘I’d like to live there.’ But there’s good people here and shallow water, and it’s good water. And it’s rewarding here. You make a lot of good friends on these old plains. And I’m thankful for every day.”

To see more of Fort’s work visit his website.