When 86-year-old Mary Spurgeon was asked to sculpt an eight-foot likeness of Wyatt Earp, to be displayed on Dodge City’s Wyatt Earp Boulevard, she didn’t bat an eye. She was used to challenges — in sculpting and in life.


     When 86-year-old Mary Spurgeon was asked to sculpt an eight-foot likeness of Wyatt Earp, to be displayed on Dodge City’s Wyatt Earp Boulevard, she didn’t bat an eye. She was used to challenges — in sculpting and  in life.
     Spurgeon, a North Oklahoma artist and rancher, personified the ingenuity, the strength and the courage for which plains women are noted.

Realizing the dream
     Becoming an artist began as a childhood dream.
     Spurgeon grew up, one of a family of five girls — and no boys — near Ensign, a small farming community 15 miles southwest of Dodge City. She worked in the fields and at other outside chores, one of which was driving the cattle to pasture in the morning and home at night. As she sat on her horse, day after day, watching the cattle graze, Spurgeon dreamed dreams that sometimes seemed far-fetched.
     There was never enough money. If you wanted something, you had to figure out how to get it.      Spurgeon longed to paint, but she was 17 before she got her first oil paints.
     And what did she paint with those first tubes? Horses! Horses have always been her favorite things to paint. For many years, however, painting was something she could do when nothing else demanded her time.
     She attended junior college and after receiving her teaching certificate, she taught in rural schools in Kansas and one year at a rural school near Cody, Wyo.
     For a time she studied under Grant Reynard, a well-known artist who had been a student of Harvey Dunn.
     “I learned a great deal about painting with oils — particularly landscapes and portraits — for which   Reynard was noted,” Spurgeon said.
     She returned to Ensign in 1943 and, that fall, accepted a teaching position at the Barby Ranch School in the Oklahoma Panhandle.
     “Everywhere I taught, I rode horseback to school, often fording creeks and rivers,” Spurgeon said. “I usually trained a colt on the way to school in the morning and home in the evening.”
     At the time, she was dating a young ranch hand and horse trainer by the name of Bill Spurgeon. They were married in November 1944, and Spurgeon became a typical rancher’s wife. She raised four children, keeping house and helping her husband with outside chores.
     Starting a ranch and raising a family left little time for painting. However, through years of depressions, teaching in remote rural schools, ranch work, rodeoing, building a home and raising a family, she painted “when she could find the time” between roundups, branding cattle, rescuing them from quicksand, searching for missing calves, helping neighbors and school activities.
     “Even though painting always took a back seat to everything else,” she said, “I never gave up. I never considered the possibility of not succeeding.”
     She applied for a correspondence course. It took two years to complete but soon after she completed the course, she sold her first paintings.
     Her determination to succeed as an artist also sustained her when she decided to build a new home using timbers from an old bridge.

1995
     Still adept at working a herd, Mary Spurgeon urges “Zan,” her registered, white-stocking, sorrel quarter horse forward, cuts a yearling calf from its mother, skillfully maneuvers it to the open gate leading to the holding pen, then wheels the horse to seek out another yearling.
     It is branding time at the Spurgeon ranches. Son Del Roy, who lives on an adjacent ranch, is in charge of operations and Spurgeon, as usual, is doing her part.  Her yearlings are branded with the “Open Hexagon” which, she says, has been the Spurgeon brand for 50 years. This done, Del Roy’s calves will be branded with his brand.
     Occasionally, Spurgeon pauses to make a notation in a small, pocket-size book which records the genealogy of every cow in both herds, including age, history and number of calves produced.
     It’s time for a break; Zan trots to the cottonwood tree shading the watering tank, and Spurgeon dismounts. She is dressed in a typical cow-person outfit; well-washed jeans, cotton shirt, well-worn chaps, cowboy hat, boots and spurs. Removing her hat, she swipes her shirt sleeve across her damp brow and, uncorking a thermos bottle, takes a long drink of water.
     Later, before returning to her role as artist and resuming work on the sculpture currently under way, she will check the heifers in the north pasture. There are only five yet to calve and, so far, she has 108 percent calf crop. (One heifer had twins.)
     During the winter of 1992-93, when 83 inches of snow kept her snowed in for three months, she calved out 21 head of heifers, she said, wading through snow banks to feed and check on them every three or four hours, day and night. The first calf was born Jan. 25; the last on March 7.
     “I wound up with a 100 percent calf crop,” she said proudly.
     Working around cattle is second nature; she has done it for most of her life.
     But there is more to Spurgeon than meets the eye.
     If, indeed, “you are what you think about all day long," Mary Spurgeon’s success as an artist should come as no surprise. She has, not only thought about it, she had worked toward it her entire life.
     “It has been a full life — a busy one,” she said. “Early on, we had no plumbing on the ranch, so I carried water from the well for all our needs. What with rescuing cattle from quicksand, searching for strays, cooking for cowboys, helping neighbors, keeping up with school activities, and participating in rodeos (She was a barrel racer), there was not much time for painting.”
     “When the children were small, Bill worked for various ranchers and we moved frequently,” she said. “During this time, however, we were building our own herd of cattle and, in 1959, we leased the old Mashed O Ranch on the Cimarron River.”
     In 1972, they purchased the old family ranch five miles to the south for which Bill Spurgeon’s grandfather, Nelson Taylor, and his wife, Almeda, had traded a team and wagon for squatter’s rights in 1889.
     “It was still a lot of work, but now we were working for ourselves,” Spurgeon said. “Bill was becoming well known as a horse trainer by that time and that brought in extra money.”
     Bill Spurgeon was killed in a riding accident in 1982, leaving the responsibility of running the ranch to Spurgeon. Prior to the death of her horse, Zan — her lifelong friend — Spurgeon continued to participate in round-ups, branding, etc.
     She still managed to find time for her art, however, and with the passing of time, her paintings became increasingly popular. After she turned her eye to sculpting, demand for her sculpture left little time for painting.
     However, Spurgeon didn’t mind. She was doing what she loved to do.
     “I love the ranch,” she said. “I love my art. And I love my family. I feel that I have been blessed.”

A many-faceted life
     Her art reflects the many facets of her life, and of her pioneer heritage. Always striving for realism, Spurgeon painted and sculpted the stories of the new West as well as the old. Her chief objective was action.
     Spurgeon’s 8-foot statue of Wyatt Earp was to have been the first in a series to be placed along the Dodge City Trail of Fame. After completing this statue, she began sculpting a likeness of Doc Holliday. However, according to a city representative, the project was put on hold because of a lack of funds.
     Her work has won numerous prizes and awards. In 2008, the Kansas House of Representatives announced the passage of House Resolution 6015, honoring “Kansas native and renowned sculptor, Mary Spurgeon,” for her distinguished work and artistic achievements representing the spirit of the state of Kansas.
     Spurgeon, a nominee to the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, was the featured artist in the Oklahoma State Capital Governor's Gallery, and her paintings and sculpture have been displayed at the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, the Dodge City Public Library, the Western Spirit Show at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Museum, the American Quarter Horse Congress, the Barrel Racing Futurity and National Reining Finals in Oklahoma City, the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association in Kansas City, the Texas Stockgrowers Association in Fort Worth, the Festival of the West in Scottsdale, Ariz., as well as in galleries in Wyoming, Denver, in Western art shows across the country and in homes, businesses and institutions throughout the world.
     In 1992, The Oklahoma Historical Society designated the Spurgeon ranch a Centennial Ranch. Mary Spurgeon lived, painted and sculpted there until her death, at the age of 91, in 2009.
 

EDITOR'S NOTE: This revised, updated article first appeared in Grit Magazine.