Bob Summers has a history of getting his hands dirty. In fact, his mother used to tell the story of a young Summers, maybe two or three years old, tearing the middle out of his bread, carefully molding animals over his dinner.
“I don’t remember ever not having done it (art),” Summers said.
He credits his mother with fostering and nurturing that creative spirit. He remembers drawing at age three or four and began taking formal lessons in Cleburne from the same woman his mother studied under as a girl.
After a while, he began studying on his own and even applied for a correspondence art course by mail.
“I felt bad because I knew my dad couldn’t afford it,” Summers said.
So, he decided not to finish the course and worked on his own to perfect his technique.
“It’s just God-given talent and a lot of self-study,” Summers said.
Now Summers is an accomplished artist with works on display all over the country. However, he has switched from a bread media to a pricier bronze.
One of his favorite projects was a John Wayne memorial bronze statue on display in Orange County, Calif. He was awarded the project in 1982.
“I was so elated. I was only 40,” Summers said, fairly young to be commissioned for such a project.
Adding to his joy, Summers said he was a huge John Wayne fan and grew up watching many of his movies at the movie theater in Glen Rose, ran by his dad for many years.
The project organizers wanted a walking Wayne statue, so Summers set out to study as many of the American icon’ movies as he could, carefully noting each scene that Wayne walked through.
He remembers that Panasonic had just announced a new advancement in home entertainment and home movies - VCRs that could record television shows and camcorders than allowed people to record their own home movies on to VHS. (For anyone under 20 - Google it.)
He tentatively plopped down $3,200 on recording equipment and brought it all home, studying the manual as his wife drove so he could start recording a John Wayne movie-a-thon that was to air that night.
“I wanted the body to be recognizable without his head,” Summers said. “He has, not only physical aspects unique to his body, but physiological as well - a distinct body language.”
He remembers when the piece was finally finished and the great amounts of stress he faced when he unveiled it for the first time at the Glen Rose High School Auditorium - in front of the Duke’s two sons, Michael and Patrick.
He said Patrick sat and stared at the statue for quite a while, sending Summers into a frenzy, wondering what could be wrong.
When he finally got Patrick’s attention, he apologized and said, “This is the first time I’ve seen my dad since he passed away.”
People still talk to Summers about that project and say one of the hands looks like brass after more than 25 years of people walking up to greet the life-like Duke.
“That’s one of the greatest compliments, when people touch a piece or take pictures with it,” Summers said. “Most people like to touch them, that’s part of it, the interplay between people and the piece. I think it’s great.”
Summers is distraught by people who vandalize the work however.
“I can look at any of those pieces and almost go back in time. I can tell you what I was doing, who came by to visit,” Summers said. “It becomes a part of your life - a family member almost.
“I try to work carefully, but you can’t,” Summers said, pointing out clay spatters covering his studio in Glen Rose. “A lot of blood sweat and tears goes into this - literally.”
Summers is currently working on a project for Tulsa Oklahoma’s Route 66 beautification project. His part of the multi-million dollar, 20-mile project was only supposed to take two years. But nearly two and half years later, he still has a nearly 12-foot rearing horse in his studio.
“This is the short one,” Summers said.
Another horse will stand next to it in the final piece, reaching 14 feet into the air.
But shortly after starting the project, Summers fell from a ladder and severely injured his knee, which required surgery to repair. He was out of commission for about six months.
The completed project will feature a Model T Ford Touring car with Cyrus Avery and his family, careening dangerously close to a wagon pulled by two farm horses who have never seen a car before.
“Avery is considered the architect of Route 66,” Summers said. “He worked to get the bonds to build the bridge that connected the two parts of Route 66. It was similar to the ‘gold spike’ and the railroads in the 1840s. That was the first time America was connected by a roadway.”
But the roadway also meant scenes like Summers’ project were to become more and more common - the past meeting the future.
“When you look at the piece, you don’t know the outcome,” Summers said. “It depends on your perspective and how you interpret it. Does the horse hit or land on the bumper of the car, or does he miss it?”
But despite the occupational hazards, Summers said he tries to breathe life into every piece he works on - even if it means dodging bullets.
He was commissioned to paint several Civil War pieces a few years ago. He went to a re-enactment held in Hartford, Tennessee for research.
“They get real serious with this re-enactment stuff,” Summers said.
He had wanted to take pictures, but was told strictly no modern equipment. He did notice photographers there, but they were using period pieces and developing techniques. So, he decided to play dead.
He laid in the battlefield dressed as a soldier and tried to discretely snap photos from the ground.
“I would move slow as a turtle or slower,” Summers said. “And I would snap away.”
He said the canons would fire and shake the earth, seemingly to its core.
“Talk about up close and personal,” Summers said. “Sometimes you have to experience things like that. There’s a psychological aspect - it’s called the heart and soul of a work.”
He talked about Howard Pyle, an American Golden Age Illustrator, who would teach his students to draw shoes.
“He would say, there’s a pile of shoes over there. But don’t draw the show, draw the person that wore them,” Summers said. “Then it doesn’t just look like a shoe out of the box - it takes on the character of the person that wore them.”
Summers said it is that breath of life that makes all the difference.
“You see, it’s not a matter of detail, there’s just something about it that makes it compelling,” Summers said. “I always strive for that, to make the character believable.”