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Harold Holden

Preeminent Western artist Harold “H” Holden passed away Dec. 6, 2023, at the age of 83.

The emeritus member of the Cowboy Artists of America was the sculptor behind “The Rancher” bronze statue that greets visitors to the National Ranching Heritage Center. “The Rancher” is also presented to the National Golden Spur recipient each year.

Harold Holden grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, in a creative family that counted inventors, engineers and horsemen among its members. As the first fine artist in his family, Holden’s subject matter has always been the West, but he is particularly known for his sculptures of horses.

Believing that an artist should know his subject matter, he raised and raced American Quarter Horses and stayed close to the cowboy and ranching way of life.

His work is included in collections of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, the Oklahoma State Capitol, the National Ranching Heritage Center, the Buffalo Bill Museum and the Oklahoma History Center. In addition, Holden was elected to the Cowboy Artists of America in 2012 and has completed 22 pieces of public art in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and Arkansas.

The Summer 2020 issue of Ranch Record featured the following article about the lifelong rancher, lover of horses, and artist.

The Artist Known as H

By Scott White, Ph.D., and Heidi Brady, Ph.D.

Harold Holden is known to others simply as “H.” A native son of Enid, Okla., he grew up around cowboys, cattle and horses. His father raised horses, instilling in his son a lifelong interest in riding and ranching.

In the early 1960s, Holden wasn’t acquainted with anyone making a living by painting the West, which had been his interest growing up. Western art was not fashionable in those years, and many artists avoided the new genre. Holden, however, found that he did not want to do anything else.

“I’ve always been an artist,” he says. “Growing up I drew cowboys and Indians all the time.”

Holden attended Oklahoma State University and enrolled in the Texas Academy of Art, a commercial art school in Houston. He worked as an illustrator for Horseman magazine for several years and then used his skills to design feedbags. Holden began selling his artwork in Houston area galleries and decided to return to Oklahoma to try making a living as a full-time artist.

“The Rancher” bronze maquette is given to the National Golden Spur Award honoree. The 2023 recipient was Craig Haythorn.

Holden worked primarily as a painter until around 1971 when he branched out to try sculpting. He finished his first sculpture that year. He began completing one sculpture a year, then progressed to two and finally arrived at the point where he was working on more sculptures than paintings. He received his first commission to do a monument­ size sculpture in 1985 and has completed 25 monuments since that time.

Most of his work centers on horses as subject matter. “I always loved the horse,” he says, “and I think it’s because of all those surface planes. There’s so much involved in doing a horse right.”

Unless he is working on a specific commission, Holden usually uses ranch Quarter Horses as models for his work. He describes his style of composition as “just trial and error.”

Measurements and scale with horses can have a wide range because of individual horse-to­ horse variation, but there exist basic horse image measurement formulas based on the size of the horse’s head.

Like many artists, Holden believes that getting proportion right is the key to making the whole piece complete. “You should always check yourself when you’re doing a sculpture by measuring something,” he said. “I’ve seen some sculptures that should have never been done because the perspective is wrong. It’s just all broken up.”

“Early Childhood Development” by Harold Holden was featured in the 2023 Summer Stampede Western Art & Gear Show, held at NRHC.

In creating the breast collars, saddle and reins, Holden relies on historical references for depictions of different time periods. For modern references, he uses his own tack and equipment. When he goes to a rodeo or gathering, he photographs the cowboys and their gear, keeping those pictures as references for posture, clothing and action.

Holden’s preliminary work on a sculpture begins with a miniature. Although some artists create a pinch model (a small, quickly made rough sculpture), he creates a more intricate model ranging in height from one and a half to two inches.

Instead of drawing an idea before beginning to work his clay, he works out the design with this small preliminary sculpture because then he can see it in a three-dimensional form. He believes this helps him work out the details before he begins an accurately scaled maquette to use as a model for the larger sculpture.

For Holden, the most difficult part of depicting a horse, particularly in paintings and drawings, is shortening the perspective. If a horse is coming at the viewer at an angle, it is difficult to capture the right point of view.

The Rancher, 1987. Bronze, 8′ x 8′ x 4′.
This monument is installed at the entrance to the National Ranching Heritage Center. Holden’s cousin, Jeff Holden, was the model for the monument.

Proportion is also problematic, according to Holden. Even with a good photograph as the basis for a painting or sculpture, the proportions can be skewed. The perspective in a photograph changes the image of the horse, and the head tends to be out of scale with the back of the body. Holden makes the adjustments to sculpt the head the right size so that the rest of the horse is to scale.

Of all the pieces Holden has created, one of his favorites is Boomer. This figure represents a cowboy riding at breakneck speed to stake his claim as part of the Cherokee Strip Land Run in Oklahoma and Kansas. Holden likes the action of the piece.

“He’s got all four feet off the ground at a gallop,” Holden says. This piece was Holden’s first monument, dedicated and placed in Enid, Okla., in 1987. The U.S. Postal Service also made Holden’s image into a stamp in 1993.

At a Cowboy Artists of America meeting, Holden was approached about creating an iconic sculpture of a rancher. That’s when he “got the idea of doing the guy that I thought was the best rancher and best cowboy.” In Boss of the Forks, Holden created a sculpture of Pitchfork legend Bob Moorhouse on his favorite horse, Tex. Being a longtime friend of Moorhouse, the artist was able to truly capture the pose and character of both man and horse.

To create emotions and energy in his sculptures, Holden relies on his experience as a horseman as well as his time on ranches observing the explosive scenes that can occur. “I take a lot of photos,” he explains, “but the details are from being around [horses] all the time. Being horseback just kind of helps you along with that.”

Holden likes movement in his horses when creating a sculpture. He believes his personal experience and observation, more than training, allow him to create sculptures of a horse that mimic real life.

He explains that a horse will have more life if bucking, trotting or rearing. A tension-packed action sculpture titled Jackpot, for example, depicts a cowboy with a rope caught under the tail of his pitching horse.

Holden says his biggest influences are Remington and Russell. In addition, his good friend Tom Ryan gave him great inspiration. Other artists who have influenced Holden are Melvin Warren, George Phippen and John Free.

Of all the horses he has owned or sculpted throughout his career, the most memorable was Sam, son of the champion cutting sire Freckles Playboy. Holden traded a sculpture to Sam Smith of Houston for this horse. The horse could do it all, according to Holden. He competed on Sam in the World Series of Team Roping in Las Vegas in 2009, a few months before he entered the hospital to undergo a lung transplant.

Holden has a lifetime of awards and gold medals in recognition of his artwork. He is a member of the Cowboy Artists of America, the Mountain Oyster Club and the National Sculpture Society, among many other organizations.

He received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Oklahoma Sculpture Society, Oklahoma’s Governor’s Arts Award and Oklahoma State University’s Distinguished Alumnus Award. In April 2017, he was inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Okla.

Holden and his wife, Edna Mae, live on a small ranch near Kremlin, Okla., where Holden can work on his sculptures in his studio just 50 feet from his home. It was there that the couple raised two children and taught them to ride.

“I had my kids go from a pony to a big horse pretty quick ’cause, you know, you can give a kid a big, broke ranch horse and they’ll teach them everything,” he says. Holden has “sort of” retired on his ranch but continues to produce monument-size sculptures of his favorite subject – the horse. ★