Tumalo artist brings rodeo and race story to life

Jerry Werner creates bronze sculpture of George Fletcher for Pendleton

By Megan Kehoe / The Bulletin

Jerry Werner no longer takes every job that comes his way.

As he’s gotten older, the Tumalo artist has learned instead the importance of taking the right job. The job that promises something special. The job that could make a difference — for him and for others. He follows his gut, and looks for signs to light the way.

When Werner heard Pendleton was looking for an artist to create a bronze sculpture of a rodeo cowboy for its downtown earlier this year, he wasn’t interested. Then, Werner heard the story behind the particular cowboy — a story steeped in rodeo, racial injustice and the changing face of the American West.

He soon realized turning down a chance to sculpt George Fletcher would be an impossibility.

“For me, it’s among the top ones I’ve done,” Werner, 63, said. “A lot of times, the current piece you’re working on is the most special because you’re really zoned into it. But George was such a neat character. People can really relate to him.”

Recently, Werner completed the 7-foot bronze sculpture of black cowboy George Fletcher for a prominent placement on Pendleton’s Main Street. The statue will be unveiled in Pendleton on Thursday, ahead of the Pendleton Round-Up in September.

Werner is a prolific artist whose work is on display across the state. He has created 14 large-scale art pieces for Central Oregon, including the bronze logger sculptures in the Old Mill roundabout, the bronze relief sculptures depicting the history of Central Oregon in Farewell Bend Park and the 16-foot clock tower in Redmond’s Centennial Park. Werner is at home using a variety of media to create his art — clay, paint, metal, or even neon. His Tumalo studio is a shrine to this concept — peppered with sculpture marquettes (small-scale sculptures the artist does before creating the larger version), paintings in progress, stained glass lamps, neon sculptures and decorative metal pieces.

“Most artists are vertical in the sense that they only work in one style,” Werner said. “I’m a horizontal artist. I work in different mediums across all different techniques.”

Originally from Cornelius, Werner has lived in Central Oregon for nearly three decades. As a commissioned artist, he often gets to work on pieces chronicling and showcasing the history of local towns and cities. Werner’s Fletcher piece stands out for him as something quite memorable — both for Fletcher’s unique story, and the artist’s own journey creating it.

A black cowboy

George Fletcher was a black cowboy who lived most of his life in the Pendleton area. He emigrated to Oregon from Kansas with his family at the turn of the century, when there were only about five African-American families living in Eastern Oregon, said Prineville-based Western author Rick Steber. After being discriminated against in white schools, Fletcher elected to live on the Umatilla Indian Reservation instead, where he learned how to ride horses. He was the first black person to compete in the Pendleton Round-up, and is well-known for the controversy surrounding the 1911 round-up saddle bronc finals.

Those finals came down to three cowboys; John Spain, a white man; Jackson Sundown, a Native American; and Fletcher. It was widely believed that Fletcher had the best run of the three competitors, but he was denied first place by the judges because of the color of his skin, Steber said. Spain, the only white competitor in the finals, took first.

Steber, who recently published a book called “Red White Black: A True Story of Race and Rodeo” about the controversy, said the crowd that day was livid with the rodeo ruling, the majority believing Fletcher was the rightful winner. The Pendleton sheriff at the time, Til Taylor, was so unhappy with the decision that he took Fletcher’s hat, ripped it up into pieces and sold the pieces to the crowd for $5 each. The $700 he raised went to Fletcher so he could buy the same saddle that was awarded to Spain for finishing first.

“That day in 1911 changed the way the West thought about itself,” Steber said. “Suddenly, with the crowd’s reaction, they realized that a man more than likely hadn’t received what he had coming to him strictly because of the color of his skin. I think that was one of those defining moments that made people aware of prejudice and bigotry.”

Steber said it wasn’t until 1960 that a person of color took first at the Pendleton Round-Up finals.

Fletcher went on to serve in a black regiment in World War I, where he was wounded. He was never able to participate in another rodeo after that but stayed in the Pendleton area and worked as a ranch cowboy. He died in 1973. Fletcher was inducted into the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum’s Hall of Fame in 2006, the same year as fellow competitor Jackson Sundown, and as famous black lawman, Bass Reeves.

Fletcher was deemed the “people’s champion” during the 1911 rodeo finals. Today, he may very well still be the people’s champion. Choosing from an extensive list of Pendleton notables, Pendleton citizens voted last year for Fletcher to have his likeness cast in bronze for a statue on Main Street. The statue is part of a larger push by the city to revitalize areas of the city while simultaneously commemorating its history through art. Pendleton Mayor Phillip Houk said the city is planning to install one bronze piece a year.

“We’ve taken a look at a number of our people from the past, and we’re trying to recognize them for their contributions,” Houk said. “George was really well-liked. He was a great competitor, and he was someone the crowd really enjoyed.”

Sculpting Fletcher

Werner was chosen to take on the commission after he submitted some sketches to the city’s art commission for consideration. Houk said the sculpture has cost about $30,000, all of which is being paid for through arts grants. He said Werner’s sculpture turned out just as the city hoped it would.

“I just love the work he’s done,” Houk said. “We appreciate how great this is.”

It took Werner four months to complete the piece. First, he created the master clay sculpture. The piece was then sent to a foundry, a factory that creates metal castings. After a lengthy process involving cutting the sculpture into pieces, creating molds, making a wax cast, dipping it in a slurry of porcelain and sand, and then adding a bronze patina, the final product eventually came together to form a bronze statue of George Fletcher. Werner drove the piece, which ended up weighing around 500 pounds, to Pendleton in a U-Haul.

The master clay sculpture has been put back together, and now stands in Werner’s studio. It shows a larger-than-life Fletcher staring out coolly from behind the clay with his hands on his hips, and one foot raised and resting on a box. Werner used a portrait of a 21-year-old Fletcher as his guiding image for the piece, and the artist takes pride in the fact that everything about the sculpture is historically accurate — from Fletcher’s Montana Peaks Hat Company hat, to his ornate leather tooled chaps, to his cowboy boots. The sculpture even depicts the famed ripped hat lying in pieces at the cowboy’s feet.

Because Werner only had a photo of Fletcher facing the camera, he actually had a model who looked similar to Fletcher dress up in authentic Western wear at Pendleton’s Hamley and Co. and sketched him. These sketches helped Werner complete the sculpture accurately.

It was during this visit to Hamley and Co., a Western gear store, that Werner said he received an unmistakable sign that he made the right choice in taking the Fletcher commission.

While taking a break from sketching, Werner took a seat on a bench in the shop. A moment later, he realized he was sitting across from a large bronze statue of a Native American in a full headdress, wrapped in a buffalo robe. Which wouldn’t have been all that unusual — except that Werner said he had seen the very same Native American, in the very same clothing, in a dream he’d had one year earlier.

“He was exactly the same,” Werner said of the bronze statue. “I was just like, ‘Wow. This is amazing.’ It was confirmation for me that I was doing the right job. Sometimes there are signposts along the way.”

Werner said he is attending the unveiling ceremony in Pendleton on Thursday. Also in attendance will be at least 60 mayors, in town for the Oregon Mayors Association summer conference.

“It’s (the sculpture) a little bit like a pebble in the water in the sense that when people learn the story behind it, it creates a ripple effect,” Werner said. “It encourages them to go out and know more about the people and the character of the town.”

The author Steber, who visited Werner while he was sculpting the Fletcher piece, said he didn’t think anybody could have done as good a job as Werner because the artist understood the significance of Fletcher’s story.

“I think it’s important to stop and look at where we were 100 years ago and where we are now as far as race goes,” Steber said.

“It’s a character telling a unique story.” Werner said. “And to see him get this honor, and to be the artist to help represent him — that’s very special.”

—Reporter: 541-383-0354,

mkehoe@bendbulletin.com.