This is the story of a boy who loved Christmas so much that he grew up to make it more magical for the rest of us. That is, if you have ever had the good fortune to see his paintings – and if you haven’t, I’m here to make sure your luck changes. The artist’s name is Jack Sorenson. He grew up on the edge of Palo Duro canyon, a place so rare in its quality of light that Jack’s unique talents must have been uniquely nurtured.
Jack started drawing and sketching before he remembers doing it. His mother told him that when he was three, he would put the dog on the couch to draw him and then get terribly frustrated when his canine model would not hold a pose. By the time he reached first grade, he was so proficient at drawing anything he saw that his teacher called his mother to tell her she thought he was a prodigy. His mom had never heard the word and at first thought he must have been misbehaving. Once she understood, though, she said, “Oh, yes, he can draw anything.”
I talked to Jack for about 30 minutes a couple of weeks ago. He and I are a lot alike. We are both life-long Texans. We both live on the Texas border – he in Amarillo and me in Brownsville. We are both slow talkers because of our Texas drawls. Took us 30 minutes to have a 15-minute conversation. But when it comes to art we are on different planets. When he was being called a prodigy, my first-grade teacher was looking at a free-hand eagle I had drawn and said that it was not a bad likeness of a chihuahua. So that finished my art career right then. That eagle would never fly.
Jack, now age 62, says, “I’ve always been able to draw, sketch and paint anything I put my mind to. I didn’t just discover it one day. I’ve always had it. God blessed me with a gift and I try to honor that gift as best I can, in every painting.”
He started out sketching cowboys around his father’s western town, Six Gun City, on the rim of Palo Duro Canyon. But he soon found that cowboys didn’t much care for portraits of themselves, or even of their girlfriends. However, he learned that if he could capture the personality or beauty and power of their horses, they would always buy that portrait. So he drew pictures of horses and sold perhaps hundreds of them at $40 a piece.
This also taught him how to draw a horse with great accuracy and authenticity, which became one of his most praised attributes. Many say no one can paint a horse like Sorenson. No one alive, anyway. Jack’s father said first there was Frederic Remington, then there was Charles Russell, then Jack Sorenson.
Have you ever noticed that if a photograph is exceptional people say it looks like a painting and if a painting is exceptional they say it looks like a photograph? Some of Jack’s paintings look very much like photographs. I asked him if he ever painted from a photograph and he says, “No. A photograph will lie to you.”
He says that if you try to paint a horse from a photograph, your dimensions will be wrong. The head will be too big for the body, for instance. “A camera [as a means of painting], can’t get the truth of a horse, but a painting [live or from experienced memory] can,” he says.
“Each painting is a story in still form,” Jack says. Each canvas tells a story, a simple story. It is true. I enjoy reading the stories in his paintings. One shows a cowboy bathing in a river and he looks alarmed as he sees his horse, recently spooked, running off with the cowboy’s clothes flapping beneath the saddle. Tough to be stranded naked on the frontier like that. At least he had his hat and his boots.
One of Jack’s Christmas paintings tells of a cowboy arriving home late, Christmas Eve perhaps. His daughter, about 6 years old, is running through the snow to greet her daddy. Behind her is a modest frame home warmed by a good fire. Behind her daddy’s back is a brown-haired doll that looks a good deal like his daughter. She’s gonna be so happy in just a minute.