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.
Jack loves Christmas. He says no one loves Christmas as much as he does. When he was a boy, he says he always wanted to be the one to pick the Christmas tree. So his father would send him down into Palo Duro Canyon to select one. He’d cut a big one and drag it back to the house behind the horse, often through the snow. This scene would become a painting later in life. Another similar one is of a young boy balanced precariously on his saddle as he tries to get a Christmas star on top of a snow-covered pine tree. That one, too, was inspired by Jack’s childhood.
And then he added Santa to these scenes. Santa on horseback, Santa sledding down a snowdrift, Santa driving a stagecoach overflowing with toys. And these Santa paintings, about 70 of them, have become the centerpieces of Leanin’ Tree’s Christmas Cards – their best-selling line. Of course, Jack sells his original oil paintings in a fine gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico – one of those places where if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.
When I first saw Jack’s Christmas paintings, I thought of him as a western Norman Rockwell. His cowboys are so splendidly defined against a harsh, winter background; his Santa had slightly cherubic cheeks but sat a horse with more seasoned agility than a city Santa could. I love being surrounded by Sorenson’s works over the holidays. His paintings make me think of simpler times when a doll in a blue dress, delivered on horseback, on a snowy Christmas Eve, could be the greatest gift in the world.
Jack knew early in life, when he was a teenager in fact, that his life would be lived as a painter. And at 62, he says he is still improving.
“I’m in exactly the right spot at exactly the right time, and I’m doing what God wants me to do,” he says. “You can’t ask for more than that.”
I certainly agree.
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Stories From Texas, UTRGV Digital Library, The University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley. Accessed via https://scholarworks.utrgv.edu/storiesfromtexas/