John Dale Free
An artist born on April 7, 1929, in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, to Ott and Marie Crowther Free, John Dale Free grew up on his grandfather's ranch near McAlester, Oklahoma. There he earned a lifelong admiration of cowboys and the ranching lifestyle. Upon graduating from high school he attended Oklahoma State University for a time with the intention of earning a degree in animal husbandry. He left college early to begin ranching and to compete on the rodeo circuit.
He struggled financially for several years until a friend convinced him that he could make a living as an artist. In 1965 he went to Taos, New Mexico, and for the next four years studied art under the direction of Tommy Lewis. In 1969 Free returned to Pawhuska to begin his career as a professional artist. By 1971 he had his first one-man show at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame (now the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum) in Oklahoma City and was becoming recognized for his talent. He both painted and sculpted early in his career but gradually began to concentrate on sculpture. Many of his creations depicted American Indian subjects, reflecting his Osage/Cherokee heritage.
In 1981 he founded the Bronze Horse, a fine arts bronze foundry, to provide himself and others a convenient facility for casting their sculptures. This successful enterprise continued into the twenty-first century as a family business under the management of John Dale Free, Jr.
John Free is a member of the Cowboy Artists of America and the National Academy of Western Artists and is a lifetime member of the Oklahoma Sculpture Society. His work is held by the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum of Oklahoma City, the Gilcrease Museum of Tulsa, the Woolaroc Museum of Bartlesville, and numerous private collections across the nation.
John Dale Free was born in Pawhuska on April 7, 1929 to Ott and Marie Free. John was an incredible artist, able to create works of sculpture, oil paintings, water colors, pens, pencils and pastels. His ability to draw a horse was unsurpassed in the art world.
He was a member of the Nation Academy of Western Art, Oklahoma Sculpture Society, Prix De West, and a past member of the Cowboy Artist of America. He has shown art work at the Cowboy Hall of Fame, Gilcrease Museum, Woolaroc, as well as numerous galleries and shows. He was a silver medal winner at the annual Prix De West Art Show, and the Wrangler Award given out at the annual Western Heritage Award Banquet was sculpted by John. He is nationally known as his artwork is part of private and corporate collections across the nation. He has received numerous awards and recognitions during his 50-plus years as an artist.
John was raised by his granddad on a ranch outside McAlester, OK. John developed a love of horses, cowboys and God at a very young age. There John honed his artistic skills encouraged by his granddad. He learned the importance of honesty, virtue, discipline, hard work, family and Jesus Christ. John drew from that all his life while working full time as an artist, father, husband and especially grandfather. Many of those elements were depicted in his artwork throughout his career.
John began his art career in 1960, and trained under Thomas Lewis in Taos, NM and spent many summers in Taos shaping his craft. His wife Rayma went to work full time to allow John to have time to start his fledgling career. Rayma was instrumental in managing John's career. John lived on a small ranch north of Pawhuska where he cared for his horses including his favorite horse, Old John, and his longhorns. He also started a foundry, The Bronze Horse, with his brother-in-law, which is a family operated business.
John was a member of the Osage Nation, First Baptist Church of Pawhuska, and served in the military in Japan in his late 40's. John was preceded in death by his wife of 58 years, Rayma June Bivins Free, and his brother, Hugh Free. John felt he was greatly blessed – blessed with tremendous artistic talent, blessed with a wonderful loving wife and family blessed with a keen relationship with God and His creation, including his love for horses, cowboy life style, care of animals, blessed with an attitude of generosity, helping where he could, blessed with wisdom, humor, and storytelling. John used all these things to make his world a little better. He will be greatly missed.
Bronze Horse Foundry
His art was forged with fire and now fire has stolen his studio, taking with it many unfinished pieces, waiting to be brought to life. The Bronze Horse is where artists take clay sculptures to be molded and cast into bronze. It's an unassuming shop along Highway 99, just south of Pawhuska, and it works on pieces that end up all over the world. "It's very unique, especially, people can drive up and down this road and never know what we do out here," said John Free, Jr.
Free runs the family business his father started in 1980. He said seeing it reduced to ashes isn't easy. "You see some of that history go up and it kind of touches in a way that you're not sure how you feel," Free said. "You think about everything that's gone into it and names and people." Though thick with soot, sculptures already cast in bronze can be saved. But bronzes begin as clay and wax and about 12 moldings were destroyed. "It's clay, but it's clay that somebody's taken a lot of time and sculpted and put together and spent months on," Free said.
Only a few are salvageable. One clay piece was part of a 10-foot sculpture for the Chickasaw Nation, made by famed Oklahoma artist Kelly Haney. The craftsmanship of a foundry is an ancient process that Free said dates back 5,000 years.
News On 6 visited the Bronze Horse Foundry back in 2004 At that time, the shop was set to start casting "The American," a Native American sculpture, larger than the statue of liberty. Though it's been on hold for quite some time, Free said plans are in motion once again. Free, who seems to be as strong as the sculptures he creates, said he's ready for tomorrow and ready to rebuild. "We've got a lot of people that depend on us and we want to try to get back to business and doing what we do," Free said. Until he can rebuild, Free said he hopes to find a makeshift shop, so he can continue to work.
John D. Free Tribute Opens at Woolaroc Museum
By Roseanne McKee
On the evening of Oct. 14, at Woolaroc Museum outside Bartlesville, Okla., family and relatives of the Western sculptor and painter, the late John D. Free, gathered. Among those in attendance were sons of the artist: John, Mark and Matt Free, the artist’s sister, Delores Theis, her husband, Raymond Theis, and their son, Chris Theis.
His son, John Free spoke at the Tribute first. “Dad was born in Pawhuska in Osage County. His grandmother was a full-blood Osage. He was very proud of that heritage and that part of his life. “Probably the most important thing that happened to him was that he grew up on his grandfather’s ranch. That boyhood growing up on the ranch, of course he didn’t know at the time, would be the focus of his whole life from then on. He learned about horses and being a cowboy and about cows. He learned from his grandfather about being an old rancher was at that time. That was so special to him … and a tremendous influence and it shaped his art career probably in a way no one ever imagined. “He was always drawing and modeling as a little boy. He was always drawing horses, and cow and cowboys; he said he did this for as long as he could remember. “Early in his career he’d go to small shows in this area.”
Free shared that at these shows, his father encountered artists who encouraged him to believe that his career could grow. “You’ve got to remember back in the late 50’s, early 60’s, he was making a living from the art business. “The most important thing that happened at that time – he did a one-man show at the Gilcrease Museum and a man named Thomas Lewis approached him and asked if he would be in his gallery at Taos, New Mexico. “Lewis was a great artist and a great gallery man and he took dad under his wing. He taught him about painting. And the most important thing he did was to give him clay and said see what you can do with this. Dad returned with one of the first sculptures that was cast into bronze. It was a cowboy, I think, roping a wolf. Thomas Lewis sold that piece and that was the beginning of a relationship between a gallery owner and an artist.
And from then on dad’s career grew. “He was in galleries in New York City, Carmel, California, all throughout the Southwest. He stayed busy doing things that he never dreamed that he could stay busy at and make a living. “He was named a member of the National Academy of Western Art at the Cowboy Hall of Fame, the Cowboy Artists of America, and also the Free West, which was the old Academy of Western Art. He was always proud that he was a member of these organizations. “At this time, he was travelling a lot.
The art business allowed him to do something else he was happy to do and that was to fly. He was able to buy a plane and fly to these places. That was something he’d always wanted to do and this allowed him to do that. He was a pilot and his son, John Free flew with him and loved it too, he said. “He flew a 175 all across the United States,” John Free said. “In 1980 he partnered with his brother-in-law, Ed Bivens, and they opened the Bronze Horse Art Gallery, which is still operating today [in Pawhuska]. Our family has worked for more than 100 artists and we produce thousands of sculptures that have gone all the way across the United States and around the world. He was always proud of that – that through these endeavors he was able to open a foundry and see a lot of artists’ careers start from that foundry and grow. We’ve been doing it for over 30 years. It’s hard to believe.
“Dad said he was always fortunate to make a living doing something he loved so much. And if he didn’t do it making a living, it would be his hobby. “When asked about his favorite piece, he’d say, ‘the one that just sold and went out the door.’ “He said he looked forward to being able to continue to press his ideas, impressions and beliefs through the language of sculpting and painting in a simple and traditional manner. “He always did a lot of research and he read a lot, which gave him ideas for pieces. And he also liked telling the stories to his grandkids about things he learned about. “And probably last, but not least, the greatest influence in his art career was probably his wife, Rhema, without her, he probably would not have had a career. As an artist, taking care of business is not what you do. And mom was his partner, accountant, bookkeeper, scheduler, travel agent, the buffer between him and the rest of the world. And she did it very well.
“He’d have been very humbled by this tribute, and the people that appreciate his work, so on behalf of the family — thank you very much.” Next, the artist’s nephew, Chris Theis, spoke at the Tribute. “My uncle John, you may have known him as John D. Free, Western artist, but I just knew him as Uncle John and he was my hero and still is today. Uncle John was an influencer. When you around, when you look at these pieces and you look around at yourself and these pieces, you see influence. You see somebody that really was a time machine in a man because he takes you to a place you’ve never been before. He takes you to a place America was. In his sculptures, “He had a gift from God to put action and motion within stillness.”
Chris Theis spoke of his uncle’s encouragement to be creative by giving him molding clay when he was a child. Although he did not take up sculpting, Theis found his place as the Creative Director for T.D. Jakes Ministries. “It’s also generational because my son is a graphic artist [for Fox Sports] and a lot of what I do is directing other artists…The show I direct is called ‘The Potters Touch’ and currently we’re redesigning the graphics package,” Theis said. “I’m very glad to be a small part of his legacy and as I said, he’s always been my hero.”
During the reception, a friends of the artist, August and wife, Ginny Hague, shared that there would be a knock at his back door and John Free would open the screen door and hand Ginny Hague, a scroll and say ‘here’s something for you.’ “Ginny would just unroll it and it would be a pencil sketch. He gave us more than one, but this one was special because he wrote on it, ‘To a Special Friend,’” August Hague said. August and Ginny Hague recalled a special week they had spent with the artist and other friends when a group of them brought their campers to Pine Bluff to do some work on a church together. “We had a real good time. John and I built a cross and he even made the nails,” August Hague said. Ginny Hague said she videotaped the raising of the cross and many tears were shed as the group sang ‘The Old Rugged Cross.’ “We came back home and we all said ‘we need to do that again,’ but we never did. It’s sad, but we never did,” August Hague said wistfully.
The John D. Free Tribute at Woolaroc Museum continues through Dec. 31. The exhibit, includes some sculptures for purchase.
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