By David Bowser
PAMPA, Texas Gerald Sanders started out carving sticks when he was growing up on a ranch in North Texas.
"All my life, I've whittled and carved," the 72 year-old Sanders says.
Most of the things he carved as a kid, he gave away.
"I didn't really realize I had any talent until I guess I was in my 30s," he says. "I thought if an old country boy like me could do it, anybody could do it."
It's a God-given talent, he notes.
"I never did take any art lessons," he says. "I never did study art."
But that talent has earned him a reputation among sculptors and art collectors. It has made a living for him, taken him to England and given him a whole new set of stories to tell.
"I was born in Krum, Texas, right out of Denton," Sanders says. "They used to have a great restaurant there, the Clay Pot, but it's all gone now. I used to work in the stockyards down there at Fort Worth."
He also worked for M.L. Leddy in the bootmaker's shop.
"I did a little rodeoing around when I was a kid, young and ignorant," he says.
But mostly, he worked with his uncle, C.L. Ennis, on a ranch near Denton.
"My uncle raised me," Sanders says. "He worked for a little old ranch up there at Stony, Texas. I lived with him and worked for him at the ranch."
From there he went to San Angelo to break horses.
"I broke horses for old man Carl Sutton," Sanders says.
The Pampa sculptor was at an art show in Kerrville four or five years ago when a lady came in and said her brother finished breaking a mule at San Angelo that Sanders had started before leaving to go fight in World War II. Sanders remembers the mule.
"I called him a barn-climbing mule," Sanders laughs. "He was a heckuva saddle mule after he got broke. He won a bunch of races at rodeos. They used to have these mule races. That was a runnin' son of a gun. As a matter of fact, he ran and jumped over a pole fence in the corral where we broke 'em. This guy, he finished the string of horses that I started."
After leaving Kerrville, Sanders and his wife stopped at a cafe on their way home, and there was the man who broke the mule.
"I got to meet that guy," Sanders says. "We sat there over a meal and relived a bunch of old times. He told me about all the money he won with that running mule."
After the war, Sanders went to work for the phone company, climbing poles and making sure Panhandle residents were connected to the outside world.
Throughout his travels, he continued to carve and whittle on anything that was handy. He carved wood and, being an avid hunter, started carving on elk horn.
It was at an art show for Panhandle artist Kenneth Wyatt that Sanders' reputation for carving caught up with him.
"He asked me if I was the guy who carved the elk horns," Sanders recounts of meeting Wyatt. "I said, 'Yeah.'"
After the show, Wyatt came over and looked at Sanders work.
"He said, 'You need to be working in wax,'" Sanders says. "I didn't know there was such a thing."
Wyatt got Sanders started in wax.
"I still tend to want to carve," Sanders concedes. "I don't do it like I think it's supposed to be done. I just gob it all on there and get my pocket knife and just rough it out just like I would a piece of wood. Then I get in there and get to putting the detail in it."
Sanders began taking is art work seriously in 1978.
"I took early retirement from the phone company after I saw I could make a living at it," he says.
Perhaps the biggest boost to his art career was in August of 1982.
A photograph of one of his sculptures came out on the cover of phone books across the country. It was the bronze of a telephone lineman climbing a pole, which is one of the things Sanders did for the phone company.
"That came out on 14.5 million phone book covers," he says. "That's really what got me started."
Although he's produced a variety of sculptures ranging from Native American legends to African tribesmen to extraterrestrial aliens to tooth fairies, he is perhaps best known in this part of the world for his horses, a difficult animal to capture in bronze.
"Horses are beautiful," Sanders says. "They are God's creation. They are a beautiful thing."
He draws on his experiences and stories he's heard for much of the inspiration for his pieces. One piece showing a rearing horse being held to a snubbing post by an Apache cowboy, titled "A Dollar A Day," was based on a tale by Charlie Ennis, his great uncle who cowboyed across the West and died in Oregon at age 105.
Sanders says he grew up on such stories.
"I come from a bunch of drovers," he says. "This uncle that I worked for down at Stony, he helped gather the last of the Longhorns off the Matadors. God, he could tell those stories."
Sanders' grandfather and a brother, Charlie Ennis, drove cattle through the Panhandle of Texas in their younger days.
"He said that bluestem grass looked just like wheat in the wind," Sanders says. "He said it looked like an ocean with that wind blowing on it. It went for as far as your eye could see. There were driving from down in South Texas, down in that old brush country where the Longhorns originated. There were driving them to the rail head in Kansas. He said the only town that was there was Hidetown. I found out after he died that was near Mobeetie. He said it was on a creek and they called it Sweetwater."
Today, Sanders lives just a few minutes drive from Sweetwater Creek that once served buffalo hunters and cattlemen moving their herds.
"I'd never been up in this country then," Sanders says. "I was just maybe 15, 16 years old."
Uncle Charlie was the storyteller of the family.
"He lived up in Montana, and they were moving a bunch of cattle," Sanders says, recounting one of the stories he'd heard at his uncle's knee. "He said everybody got up one morning, got the cows up and started moving around."
Uncle Charlie told the cook that when they got the cattle moving out, he'd come back and help him move the chuckwagon.
They got the cattle moving and were out about half a mile or so when Uncle Charlie turned around to go back and help the cook so he could go on up the trail and set up for dinner.
"He said when he rode back within sight of the chuckwagon, the team was out in front of the tongue of the wagon and the cook was down on the ground, leaning up against the tongue," Sanders says.
When Uncle Charlie got there, Sanders says, there was blood everywhere. There was a rattlesnake on the ground that had bitten the cook on the side of the finger. The cook had taken the kindling ax and chopped off part of his finger where the snake had bitten him.
"It was 40 miles to the closest doctor," Sanders says. "He knew that was the only way to do it."
The cook told Uncle Charlie that he'd tried to cut it in the knuckle but he missed, and there was a white sliver of bone still sticking out. The cook asked Uncle Charlie to ring part of the bone out around the knuckle and pull the skin up around it.
"Uncle Charlie said, 'Oh yeah, grab ahold of that wagon wheel,'" Sanders says.
Uncle Charlie took his knife and cut the bone sliver out. The cook had already passed out three times trying to cut that bone out.
Charlie slid the skin up around the wound, took eight or 10 stitches, wrapped it up with a piece of old rag that the cook had around his sourdough, and poured coal oil on it.
Sanders says his uncle told him the cook never said a word.
"He said he hooked the team up and got everything loaded for him," Sanders says. "The cook crawled up on the wagon and cracked that whip. He had dinner ready for them when they got there."
Sanders says his uncle told him that back then there was a different mindset.
"He said you already had it in your mind that if I fall and break a leg, I'm going to have to set it myself," Sanders says. "You're going to have to do it all yourself. You can't pick up a phone hanging on the wall. That cook already had the mindset that he had to cut that finger off, sew it up and get on with the job.
"We're talking tough people," Sanders continues. "They don't make them today like they were then."
Sanders says that when Uncle Charlie came to visit at Sanders' grandfather's place, he would never sleep in the house.
"He'd sleep either in the barn or out under a tree," Sanders says. "That's where he was raised. That's where he wanted to be."
Sanders says his Uncle Charlie would tell him, "I ain't never slept in one of them beds."
His Uncle Charlie had an old bedroll, treated with linseed oil, with three straps on it.
"That was a bedroll," Sanders says. "Everything he had was rolled up in that bedroll."
Sanders says his Uncle Charlie worked at one ranch that was so remote they dropped his mail and supplies from an airplane.
"Up in Montana, he wintered in there with the herd," Sanders says. "He was still breaking horses when he was in his seventies, but he walked like he'd been run over by nine trucks. He was a little bitty guy, but he was tough."
Of the 12 brothers and sisters, almost all of them lived to be in their 90s or over 100.
"They were long livers," he says.
Nearly all of them were musically inclined, Sanders says. He says he found out recently that the artist's gene runs in the same channel as the musical gene.
Sanders can spend hours spinning yarns passed down by his uncles or can discuss the merits of his art work or that of other artists he admires, but he is perhaps proudest of a newspaper clipping out of The Dallas Morning News. It's an interview with Albert Phillips, a sculptor from Denton who is quoted as saying he has a friend in Pampa who probably saved his life.
"He'd lost his wife," Sanders says. "I told him to load up in that old pickup and come up here."
Sanders told Phillips he had some talent, and that he would show him how to sculpt.
"I gave him a crash course here," Sanders says. "He stayed with me a week. He's been everywhere now. He's been on TV. He said I probably saved his life. I gave him something to do with his hands and his mind. That makes me feel good to have helped someone along."
Of course, Sanders says, stroking his beard, there was the time he was ready to kill Phillips.
Phillips was the camp cook on their elk hunting trips.
"I'd come over the Continental Divide pulling two mules," Sanders says. "I was coming over what they call the Knife's Edge. You'd usually get off and lead your horse and pack mules across there. It was snowing so bad, I didn't even know when we crossed it."
The trail was only a few feet wide.
"I was covered with snow," Sanders says. "I told that old horse, 'If you can't find our way out of here, we're both goners.' I couldn't see, so I was trusting this horse's instincts. I couldn't even see the horn of the saddle. It was just covered with snow."
Every once in a while, he says, he'd shake off the snow and look around to make sure the two mules were still following him.
"Directly, we were in the trees," he says. "Now, we were way above timberline when we come over the top. We were probably 12,000 feet. Way up on top."
When he got back to camp, Phillips had just finished cooking supper. Sanders asked him if he had anything to thin his blood. He reached in the chuckbox and handed Sanders a bottle.
"I took a glug, glug, glug," Sanders says, "and it was prune juice!"
Fortunately, Phillips did have something to help warm the soul, Sanders says, or they would have been packing out more than elk meat.
"He's an old cowboy," Sanders says with a grin, "although he's done pretty good with his art work. He's another one of them old boys that's worked these ranches and is all broke up and twisted and crippled."
Phillips, too, had tried his hand at the rodeo circuit.
"He went on to become an electrician," Sanders says. "It was a lot easier doing that electrical work than it was riding them bulls. He worked on some ranches in Montana, some of those big ranches."
Sanders says he's met a lot of wonderful people since he's turned his efforts to the art world. But then, he adds, he met a lot of wonderful people before becoming an artist.
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