Organizations* : CAA
Raised on a small farm in Arlington, South Dakota, John Kittelson became a traditional Western sculptor of cowboy and equestrian figures in wood, bronze and ceramics, although he also paints. As a child, Kittelson had early exposure to sculpture, playing with wood toys hand-carved by his father.
At the age of 13, Kittelson became a saddle maker and a year later left his home to work as a cowboy in South Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Wyoming and Colorado. When he settled down in the shadow of the Rockies in Poudre Valley near Bellvue, Colorado, Kittleson returned to leather craft, making saddles and belts. His last major leatherwork was the 1957 Cheyenne Frontier Days trophy plaque.
Around 1956, Kittelson began painting in oil, using his Tepee Bar brand with his signature. Self-taught as a sculptor, he “got serious” about his whittling and started selling small woodcarvings, mainly horses. By 1966, he was one of the first seven artists elected to the Cowboy Artists of America. In 1970, Kittelson began to work in bronze, saying “bronzes bring the big money.”
However, it is for his woodcarvings that Kittelson is known. For these, Kittelson buys an entire linden tree and lets it sit for up to three years until it’s cured, then has it kiln-dried. Without a sketch, he then roughs in his desired shape with a bandsaw and starts chiseling. “You have a lot of whittlers, but I’m a chiseler.” By 1969, his popularity was such that “I could have worked 24 hours a day and not fill all the orders.”
More recently (2004), the Harness Tracks of America are presenting what Kittelson says will be the last of his large harness racing masterpieces. Ill with limited working time, Kittelson says he will not be able to produce any more of the classics that have frequently topped the HTA auction. However, he considers one of his pieces entered into the 2004 auction one of his very best. Called Heading to the Races, it is of a beautiful matched team pulling a surrey with a fringe on top.
Reference: Samuels’ Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West – Peggy and Harold Samuels, United States Trotting Association