Before decades of Western artwork could convince the exacting membership of the select Cowboy Artists of America that he was worthy to join them, Jack Sorenson first had to win over his late father, Jim.
Both were not easy.
To Jim, it just seemed like being an artist was not a way to make a living wage. He was a cowboy on the rim of the Palo Duro Canyon. He and his partner owned Six Gun City, part dude ranch, part tourist stop.
Jack was a fixture there growing up in the 1960s and into the 1970s. He drove the stagecoach for six years. He was in mock gun fights, where he’d accept the inevitable bumps and bruises from falling off one of the storefronts after getting shot. He broke 97 horses in a five-year period.
Young Jack loved the cowboy lifestyle, but he loved creating cowboy drawings even more. What began with drawing the family dog at 3 years old had grown into the possibility of a career by the time he was 18. Jim Sorenson thought his son was better served on a horse, not drawing one.
“Nobody wants their kids to starve,” Jack says. “My parents didn’t know any artists. No one in the family had been an artist. All they could think of was ‘starving artists.’ They tried to discourage me on that. Even my dad said, ‘That’s a nice hobby, but don’t you need a real job?’”
Jim then tried to convince his son how hard it would be to sell his work. Jim often trained cutting horses and young Jack took to sketching the horses his father trained. For $25, he offered them to the owners.
“Some of them love their horses as much as their wives and kids,” Sorenson says. “They all bought them.”
Jim, however, had an idea. He was friends with a saddlemaker in Amarillo and asked if he would hang three horse drawings for sale in the store. The plan was to show Jack that only owners of those horses would want those drawings, not the general public.
“And when they didn’t sell, my dad could say, ‘See, it’s a waste of time,’” Jack says. “By the time we got home, my dad got a call and was told all three had sold. That kind of backfired on him.”
Later, Sorenson sold three large paintings to a Las Vegas casino for a generous amount of money. An excited Jack called his father with the news and how much the check would be.
“When I told him what I made, I thought he’d say, ‘You’re right, this is legit,’” Sorenson says. “But because it was so much money, he said, ‘How do you sleep at night?’”
Pretty well, actually.
Finally, when Jack’s art appeared again and again on the cover of Western Horseman magazine, when his art had topped more than 80 covers of Western-themed magazines, Jim Sorenson had come around.
“By then, my dad was thinking that I must be pretty good,” Jack says. “He started to accept it.”
‘God gave me that gift’
Sorenson’s next studio painting will be No. 2,549. Though it wasn’t a studio painting, his first drawing might have been the family dog at age 3. He would drag the mutt onto the couch and start drawing. If the dog jumped down before little Jack was finished, he would slam his hand on the table in frustration.
“How many 3-year-olds are drawing animals?” he says. “I was just destined to be an artist. God gave me that gift from the beginning.”
When Sorenson first began school in Canyon, his first-grade teacher asked to talk with his mother, Cathy, about her son.
“I think Jack is a child prodigy,” the teacher said.
“My mom didn’t know what that meant,” Jack says. “She said, ‘Oh, gosh, what did he do now?’ The teacher said, ‘Your son can draw anything.’ She said, ‘Yeah, we know.’”
For a while, Sorenson didn’t think he was anything special. It was easy to draw. Everyone should be able to draw like he could. Once, his older brother drew a hot rod car.
“I thought he was just being a jerk because the drawing was so bad,” Sorenson says. “I got frustrated, telling him that’s not what it looks like. I didn’t know how unusual I was. My parents didn’t know how unusual I was.”
When Sorenson was out on a horse, he packed a sketchpad and pencils in his saddle bag. He was as comfortable with those tools as he was in a saddle. Despite his father’s initial misgivings, he knew he could be a Western artist, and not just a part-time one.
He received an art scholarship to the University of Colorado, but the Art Department was into abstract work, and that was not for him. He was about reality, more specifically, cowboy and Western reality.
That was in the Sorenson genes. He painted what he knew, and what he knew were horses, cattle, dogs, cowboys, mountains, trees, canyons, mesas, winter snows and spring thaws. He painted stories into each one, pouring his own experiences into art where the delight was in the details.
He seldom paints from a photo. It’s either from his mind’s eye or he’s perched in the middle of what he’s painting.
Jack and wife Jeanne have five children—a college professor, a special education teacher, a counselor, a doctor and a lawyer. They were told to follow their passion.
“Do what fires you up, and that was me with cowboys,” Sorenson says. “I’ve seen every episode of Gunsmoke and Bonanza five times. There’s just something that connects me with that lifestyle and I don’t understand it. My biggest talent as an artist is that I don’t have any trouble coming up with fresh ideas.
“Western art is by far the most difficult of the representational art. You have to be good at people and landscapes, and especially animals. I believe you have to be immersed in it. You can’t fake it. It’s like going to a piano recital. You can listen and tell who are the ones who are just there and the ones into it. It’s the same with Western art.”
By the time he was 20 in 1974, Sorenson began painting full time. His first one-man show sold out that first year, and he never looked back. He quit breaking horses in 1975, when he could barely pick up a brush because of an injured shoulder. Sorenson trained under as many as 28 Western artists to hone a talent and desire already there. But his nationally recognized work is uniquely his.
“There is only one Jack Sorenson,” says Michele Couch, executive director, partner and manager of Mountain Trails Fine Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “Being out in nature, everything goes hand in hand. To have that passion and desire for so many years is captured in his work.”
Nearly 90 magazine covers, and one of the Western artists for Leanin’ Tree Christmas cards, are just some of his work. He’s completed more than 2,500 studio paintings in 47 years as a professional artist.
Webb Galleries in Amarillo was the first to showcase his art. Webb often sold work to Joe Wade Fine Arts in Santa Fe. Wade and Sorenson had a partnership for 29 years. Since prior to the COVID pandemic in January 2020, his art is on display at Mountain Trails, just off the plaza in Santa Fe.
“We just started selling Jack’s work like crazy,” Couch says. “I’d call him up and say, ‘We sold another one again, I hope you’re painting for us.’ He’d say, ‘You’re awesome,’ and I’d say, ‘No, you’re awesome.’
“We can’t keep his paintings on the wall. People love his work. He’s lived that life since he was a little boy. He knows the territory, and his work is timeless.”
A wonderful torture
For the second time in three years, Sorenson was in a losing battle in trying to stop the butterflies from fluttering in his stomach on Nov. 4 at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth.
In another room, the Cowboy Artists of America were deciding his fate along with two other Western artists proposed for membership. He had been turned down in his previous attempt, and here he was again with Jeanne as the country’s top Western artists picked him and his art apart.
“It was torture,” Sorenson says. “It was terrible.”
The CAA was founded by four Western artists in 1965 in Sedona, Arizona. Being a member can catapult a career no matter how successful it is. It is what a Pulitzer is to a journalist, an Oscar to an actor, a Grammy to a musician.
For that reason, it’s intentionally exclusive. There are only 17 active members and 15 emeritus members. As many get turned down as are accepted annually.
Were he turned down again—and he missed last time by one vote—Sorenson would continue to do what he’s always done. He would still paint six days a week, still complete 35 to 40 paintings a year, still do what the Lord called him to do, still try to paint a story and elicit an emotional response from a viewer.
“But other than my marriage and the birth of my kids,” he says, “it would be the biggest day of my life to get in.”
A prospective member has two CAA sponsors. On this November day, Martin Grelle and Bruce Greene were Sorenson’s sponsors. The members were in a large room, and critiqued five of Sorenson’s paintings. They questioned Sorenson’s sponsors. That lasted 30 minutes. Then Sorenson was called in and they grilled him.
“When I played junior high football in Canyon, they had this drill called ‘Bull in the Ring,’” Sorenson says. “You’re in the middle of a circle and the coach calls out a number one at a time and they charge you. It was kind of like that. I was getting fired questions from every side.”
After that, Sorenson left while the next two were turned on the slow roast. Sorenson could only wait outside, remembering the heartache of being told he missed by one vote, the encouragement to come back and try again, and that hardly anyone gets in the first try.
Finally, Sorenson was called to come into the room. He would know immediately by the traditional sign of admittance if he made it or it was another disappointment.
When he entered, the members of the Cowboy Artists of America all stood and applauded. Jack Sorenson knew. He could breathe again. Only the hugs outnumbered the tears.
If Jim Sorenson could only see his son now.