Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and the Indians the two explorers encountered are, to say the least, the favorite subjects of sculptor Richard V. Greeves. When the Lewis and Clark bicentennial celebrations ended in 2006, it would have seemed easy for Greeves to walk away from that subject. After all, he helped close the festivities at the Autry National Center’s Museum of the American West in Los Angeles with an exhibit, “Lewis and Clark Among the Indians,” featuring more than two dozen of his sculptures, including Bird Woman, a life-size bronze of the Shoshone Sacagawea. He also took part in a symposium at the museum, “The Art and History of Lewis and Clark,” observing the 200th anniversary of the conclusion of the famed expedition.
But the 72-year-old Greeves, who has completed perhaps 35 sculptures of the Lewis and Clark expedition, says he isn’t done. “I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ll probably work on it the rest of my life,” he says from his studio in Fort Washakie, Wyoming. “I’ve worked on it the first half, so why shouldn’t I just keep going on it? There’s so much material there. My gosh, that was one of the epics in history of the United States.
“I had originally thought 40 pieces of work might cover the journey, but there’s just so much material it just keeps going on and on and snowballing and, besides that, it’s what I’ve been interested in.”
That interest began as a child in St. Louis. “I wasn’t born very far away from one of the largest depositories of Lewis and Clark memorabilia that’s in existence at the Missouri Historical Society and as a kid, why, I was within a bike ride of that place, and I just haunted that place to the point where the people in the museum there would just see me hanging around and they’d just give me gopher work, which also gave me the opportunity to rummage through all their stuff. Wonderful place for a guy who’s interested in the things that I am.”
He was also interested in art. His mother’s family included Venetian marble cutters and mosaic artists. His father’s family included ornamental plaster workers. So Greeves figures his art career began “when I was waiting in line to be born.”
When he was 15, he decided to strike out on his own. “That was kind of interesting for my mom,” he recalls. “Being a good 100 percent Italian mother, she almost went to the ceiling when I told her I was leaving. But that don’t matter even if you’re 30 years old, if you have an Italian mother and you tell her you’re leaving.”
By his mid-20s, he had bought a local trading post on Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation, converting it into his home and studio, complete with 26-foot-high ceilings, plenty of room for a sculptor. And, for Greeves, no better location could be found to find inspiration. “Everything all went hand in hand,” he says.
A member of the National Academy of Western Art, Greeves has exhibited his work at the Prix de West at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City (winning the James Earle Fraser Sculpture Award in 2000), as well as the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, home to one of his most popular pieces, The Unknown.
“We’ve all been out in the hills somewhere, sitting and looking off at a wonderful vista and wondering what it was like when the first man ever saw that,” he says of the 14-foot sculpture depicting six Indians, from a young boy to an old man, looking onto a horizon.
“It’s kind of fun to listen to different people who look at it, because each person comes up with their own conclusion,” Greeves says. “Some of them say they’re busy looking at a wagon train or something like that. I never myself had that thought, just thought what it would be like to be with some of your close buddies, sitting on the side of the mountain, looking out on a whole valley.”
But it’s Lewis and Clark for which Greeves is best known. “There isn’t one page you can’t turn to in the journals and find it just fascinating,” he says. “When they left there wasn’t even a real map of the area. It was totally unknown. I know we can’t quite pull that one off on Earth anymore. It wasn’t so long ago either——that’s the thing of it. And it didn’t take long to change it, did it?”