Dripping paint onto her saddle shoes and poodle skirts was common for 6-year-old Veryl Goodnight, a budding artist supplied with a paint-by-numbers horse kit.
As a young child in the early 1950s in Lakewood, Goodnight would sit for hours drawing and painting horses. And when she went outside to play in winter, she was sculpting horses, of course, out of fallen snowflakes.
"From as far back as I can remember, my dad would introduce me as, 'This is my daughter, the artist,'" Goodnight explained. "I've never had an identity other than being the artist."
Throughout grade school, all of her assignments and reports, from history class to science class, included horses.
"I was the girl drawing horses in English," she said. "I just wanted to be an artist."
And she was, citing her reputation as class artist from first grade through high school. And while neither of her parents were artists, both were very supportive, she said, even when paint was dripped or smeared onto her school clothes.
Loving animals, art
"I was born with two things," she said. "Loving animals and loving art. I cannot separate the two from one another."
Fast-forward some 60 years, and Goodnight - an internationally acclaimed sculptor and painter - has bridged the gap between 19th century and 20th century Western heritage and life, said friend and art collector Kathy L'Amour.
"Veryl will be remembered as one of the most influential contemporary female artists of all time," said the widow of American novelist Louie L'Amour. "She'll be remembered, respected and hold a major place as an American female artist."
L'Amour owns approximately a half dozen of Goodnight's paintings and sculptures. Her favorite is "Passing Times," a 35-inch tall bronze sculpture completed in 1993 featuring two women on horseback riding in opposite directions. The elder woman depicted with a skirt rides sidesaddle in modesty and dignity as she gazes with curiosity onto a younger woman donning a split skirt and riding astride in a more practical manner.
"It reminds me of riding with my grandmother on her ranch when I was a child," L'Amour said.
The superb attention to details in Goodnight's work helps to convey the wonderful stories included in her art, L'Amour said, and if she had more space on her walls and shelves at her ranch east of Mancos, she'd purchase all of Goodnight's work.
"There's nothing of hers that I wouldn't like to have," she said. "Veryl's a special artist and a more terrific lady. We're lucky to have her here in the Mancos Valley. She's a valuable asset to the local area, and the country."
Familial tie to Mancos
When the artist and her husband, Roger Brooks, moved from Santa Fe to Mancos in 2006, Goodnight said she was surprised to learn that John Wesley Sheek was a founder of the Mancos Valley. The irrigation ditch along the backside of her home about a mile north of Mancos, in fact, is known as Sheek Ditch.
"That's wild," she said. "That's just crazy."
Sheek was the stepbrother and business partner of Texas cattle baron Col. Charles Goodnight. A distant relative of the famed Texan, Goodnight said the celebrated and treasured icon has heavily influenced her work. And not a week goes by that someone doesn't bring him up in same way, shape or form.
"I don't know if people expect more out of me because we share the same name, but the longer he's dead, the bigger his legend becomes," she said. "He was a phenomenal human being, and in a lot of ways my work has contributed to carrying on his history."
Four major works have resulted from the family name. In 1982, she completed her first life-size statue, Col. Goodnight's favorite longhorn cow, "Old Maude." The artist visited a ranch in Oklahoma to observe cattle during the calving season for inspiration.
During Col. Goodnight's adventures along the Goodnight-Loving Trail, more than 10 million cattle were driven north from Texas to Colorado and Wyoming. His lead steer was named, Old Blue. More than 100 years after the steer's death, its likeness, complete with a bell, was sculptured in 2010.
The artist also used Col. Goodnight's wife, Mary Ann, as a muse in 1995 to create "The Gathering," which depicts a woman feeding chickens. Three rented chickens were used as models, and they lived on the artist's studio stage in a bed of straw for weeks, providing both vision and fresh eggs.
And in 2000, the artist commemorated her ancestor's role in saving bison from extinction. The life-size sculpture "Back from the Brink" captures Mary Ann bottle-feeding a bison calf as another awaits its turn to feed.
"Veryl Goodnight captures the history and legacy of the American West in her carefully studied bronzes depicting subjects with far reaching appeal," said Adam Duncan Harris, a curator at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyo.
A featured artist at the museum, Goodnight recently unveiled her "Born to Run" sculpture at the Wyoming museum. Along with being an artist, she's also a musher, and used two of her own huskies as models in the piece with hopes the work would convey a better understanding of the physical and behavioral differences between wild canines and dogs.
"Bison, horses and various members of the canine family cavort alongside characters of the human variety in her ever-growing cavalcade of great Western icons," Harris added.
A deep, intense love and admiration for all animals - from eagles and elks to burros and bears - inspires Goodnight's naturalist approach to artwork.
"I love animals," she said. "I was born loving animals."
After four decades, her knowledge of animal anatomy has been finely tuned, and she prefers working with animals in motion. She said finding the balance between the spontaneous reactions of the subject and incorporating those details is always a challenge.
"The animals will return again and again to the pose or the composition that I've chose," she said. "That's what keeps it exciting."
'The inspiration here'
Goodnight is one of nine nationally recognized wildlife artist to call the Four Corners home. The landscape and wildlife along with the ranching and mining heritage of the West are all potential subjects.
"The inspiration here is incredible," she said. "This is an exciting place for someone with an inquiring mind."
Jamie Bade, owner of the Goodnight Trail Gallery in downtown Mancos, said it's a privilege working alongside such an extremely prolific artist and wonderfully kind-hearted person. She described Goodnight as a perpetual student, always studying her subject matter and its importance to the world.
"Veryl approaches every challenge and task in her life with all of her heart," Bade said. "She possesses a quality that all women would admire; she can go from denim to diamonds, as she would say, without a hitch."
Bade said Goodnight was the first to introduce her to the art world, and has since posed for multiple sculptures, including the 2009 life-size piece, "A New Beginning." The work celebrates the role of women in history, particularly that of the Wyoming Territory, which in 1869 was the first to grant women the right to vote.
"Although Veryl predominately sculpts historic pioneer women, each of these figures embodies the strength, dignity and independence that she and women of all ages and times possess," Bade said. "The greatest lesson we as woman can learn from Veryl is follow your heart and work hard."
"For me, it's an honor to be a part of an amazing collection of artwork that she has produced over the last 40 years," Bade said. "I'm honored to be a part of something and someone who will go down in history."
'The Day the Wall Came Down'
Goodnight is probably best known for her piece, "The Day the Wall Came Down," a tribute to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The 7-ton monument to freedom features five horses jumping over the rubble of the Berlin Wall.
The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency awarded her its "Agency Seal Medallion" for the sculpture.
Despite the recognition, Goodnight modestly said she is not the hero. She said she was a mere surrogate for the C.I.A. honor, insisting the true honorees are each of the CIA officers who have died in the line of duty to help keep America free.
"To this day, their names cannot be bared, so they are the ones who deserve the gold medal," she said. "I'm just fortunate to have a sculpture that in some way commemorates their work."