Gene Zesch grew up during the Depression on a hard scrabble central Texas ranch working cattle, shoeing and breaking horses, milking cows and building fence in between riding horseback four miles to school. His experiences with ranching provided the inspiration for his famous carvings which portrayed the witty and rich irony of that life.
Honored by numerous awards and publications, Gene’s long and illustrious career distinguishes him as the nation’s premiere cowboy woodcarving caricaturist.
Gene first received national recognition when President Johnson bought some of his carvings.
Publicity about this event resurfaced in 1993-1994 when the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery included one of Zesch’s carvings.
Then in 1996-1997 he was one of 12 artists used by the National Archives in their show “Tokens and Treasures of 12 Presidents”.
Photos and stories of these pieces were widely distributed by the National Geographic, New York Times, UPI etc.
Gene started carving in 1954. He had just married his high school sweetheart, Patsy, and entered the Army as a pilot.
While on leave they passed through Santa Fe and watched a man on the Plaza carving a likeness of President Eisenhower. He had never seen a sculpture with the bold cuts that gave it character. He was literally smitten by this medium and told his wife “I believe I can do this”.
After his stint as a pilot he returned home to the ranch and started carving, selling first in gift shops then small art galleries and finally to some of the top Western art galleries in the U. S.
His first one man show was at the Witte Museum in San Antonio. He didn’t realize how prestigious it was to have a one man show at such an early age.
His next one man show was in 1988 in the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio. According to Al Lowman, Director, “it is by far the most popular exhibit we’ve ever had”.
He then had a one man show at Texas A&M University, which he says was an “art free zone” when he attended.
By far, his one man show at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum has been his most important show. It was held September 2005 to January 2006. It was one of the best attended one man shows in the history of the Museum. They now have seven pieces in their permanent collection.
Professor and sculptor, Umlaf, advised Gene not to take lessons but to keep developing his own style.
Even though he has flown airplanes, ridden motorcycles all over the world, and skied, his greatest pleasure has been to part time ranch with his sons and grandsons.
EARLY LIFE ON RANCH
Gene was born in 1932 during the great depression on a ranch in Mason, Texas. Because of the relatively high cost of gasoline he rode a horse four miles to school beginning with his first day.
As he grew older he milked a cow before going to school. Later he learned to shoe horses and then to break them. All ranch boys were expected to round up and work cattle, build fences, etc. any time they were not in school. A friend once told Gene “Our fathers want us to inherit this land so we can suffer like they did”.
He later ranched in Texas and in Durango, Mexico where his friend Ace Reid, said, and “other than a million dollars of experience, I never made a dime”.
He feels that he is recording ranch life, as he has know it. Most of his work is an exaggeration of experiences he or his friends have had. All art is exaggerated to some degree, but caricature gives Gene more to “play” with.
Later he learned about the lost wax method of casting which dates back over 6000 years. When the process was refined a bronze was so exact that some sculptors marked their pieces with a thumbprint.
Most of the pre-Columbian, Greek and Romanesque bronzes were also painted. After the rubber mold was invented multiple pieces could be cast. Frederick Remington cast over 200 pieces of some of his bronzes.
Artist who painted bronzes included the well-known French caricaturist, Honoré Daumier (1808-1879) and the few castings by Picasso. Charlie Russell painted all of his originals.
Gene casts his bronzes directly from his woodcarvings. He then paints them just as many were done thousands of years ago.