When I think of horses and Montana, certain images come to mind: Aunt Susie’s horse, April, the Miles City Bucking Horse Sale, Plains Indians, pack horses in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, and Uncle Bill riding for Doc Pruyn’s cattle drives. What strikes me most, however, is having learned that wild horses were once plentiful there. It is my hope that dwindled stock will soon be protected and I wonder if we’re starting to see signs of change. Plains, Montana, recently changed its name back to Wildhorse Plains, and a hot springs nearby bears the same name. I also think of Dave Govedare’s homage, “Grandfather Cuts Loose the Ponies,” which depicts 15 wild horses running along the rim-rock overlooking the Columbia River at Vantage.
So, when I first saw Gary Ruckman sculpting horses, I stopped and watched intently. And then, before my eyes, I saw them racing over wild horse plains.
The oldest of three boys, Gary was born over a family-owned grocery store in Saskatchewan. He remembers sitting at the chrome table in the kitchen when he was four or five years old. His job was to stay at the table and keep his brothers busy while his mother washed laundry. They would play with soldiers, tanks and airplanes made of modeling clay. Their inspiration had been the action they’d seen on newsreels of World War II during Saturday matinees.
Gary’s next memory about modeling clay was during Grade 3, when he made a farm scene, complete with farmyard, barn and animals. An art teacher entered it into the regional fair in Vancouver, B.C. and it won a Blue Ribbon. By this time, his family had moved to New Westminster, where his father continued with the grocery trade. In Grade 6, Gary worked at his dad’s store bagging peanuts and putting eggs in cartons. But, in Grade 7, he was failing art class because he “couldn’t shade.” So, when he “found clay in the back of the art room,” he sculpted a Great Dane and pup and gave it to the art teacher, who fired it and kept it. “I got a passing grade,” he said.
Extra-curricular hours were spent playing every popular North American sport, but from 1955 to 1962 he played football and became a star halfback. He also married Bonnie, his high-school sweetheart, and they had two children. Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, Gary entered the grocery store trade and eventually became the district manager of a provincial chain. All this time, he didn’t touch a piece of clay, save 35 years ago, when he made a sculpture of the their beloved schnauzer. But, in 2003, when he retired, Bonnie suggested he take up ceramics and that is when Gary signed up for a beginning ceramics class at the Port Moody Arts Centre.
Week by week, he has since worked steadily, hand-building and sculpting, though he recalls he “started out all over the place.” A number of the pieces he makes are maquettes for stone carving. I am not sure if one medium influenced the other but, over time, he has developed some signature pieces, stylized forms, among which are sleek-lined whales, bears, and horses.
One day when I was at the studio, after I told Gary I wanted to do this story, he handed me a big stack of Kodak CDs full of photos. I took them home and started scrolling through them. Image after image of birds, horses, dogs, rams, a giraffe, fish, whales, a cat, and masks in varying stages of completion. I thought back to his comment about how he’s worked steadily week after week since 2003. He studies images of animals from different angles before he works on them; however, I disagree with him when he says he’s “not a sculptor, he’s a primitive counterfeiter.”
Over time, Gary has perfected the way he makes horses, his favorite subject. Before, he would sculpt the body, head, and legs and support the horse from the middle. Now, the horses are freestanding from start to finish. He uses lollipop sticks inside the legs for structural support; they burn out during firing. The style of his horses has evolved, too. Three years ago, in Bellingham, Washington, he found a book on wild horses and foals. He didn’t buy it at the time, but Bonnie later gave it to him as a present. He made a study of the photos, then translated them to clay.
What he does might seem that simple to him, but for someone like me, who has only sculpted marine forms, I can only marvel at the ease with which he seems to capture not just an animal but its essence. When he first he started becoming interested in making horses he researched them. “Horses originated in North America,” Gary said. They migrated “via the Aleutian peninsula and with the Ice Age,” he said, “they moved into Asia and other countries.” He explained the animal kingdom ended up with four different kinds of horses: forest, desert, steppe, and mountain. After he learned about them, he learned how to sculpt each kind. In 2007, Gary had show called “Just Horsing Around” at the Port Moody Arts Centre. He chose the different horses he could make based on research and he ended up showing 28 four-legged critters: a mule, three donkeys and the rest horses. Asked why he concentrates on horses, Gary said he is drawn to the “beauty of a horse and variations in the different muscular and structure.” At, present he’s perfecting the leg and body style of his horses.
Paper clay is Gary’s main medium and he said it works best for raku firing. However, because paper clay turns pink when fired, at times he uses white underglaze on it before glazing. M-340 is his clay of choice when he donates work to benefit auctions because it “gives you a better color.” Gary has a special fondness for raku and he has long assisted with arts centre raku firings and for the annual Raku-U benefit. His three favorite raku glazes are Blue Lustre (bluish-black), Black (jet to reddish black) and White Crackle. Gary also makes gifts of a number of pieces of his work. For the past five or six years, he’s been making 50 figurines of animals for children at the Christmas event in his village.
When I asked Gary if he thinks creativity is innate, he said he believes that art can be the product of desire or talent. I couldn’t stop there, of course, so I asked him which category he belonged to and, after hesitating, he said talent. The last piece I saw that he’d made was a rakued polar bear. It is gorgeous! Looking to the future, he has quite a few projects in store, including beginning to work on humans as sculptural subjects. “I think a person in retirement years has to have something they can work on and enjoy,” he explains.