"The Shaman Calls, The Shaman Beckons," | Bronze, 31.5 x 11 inches | Art photos: Marc Bennet

Pictographs on the Pecos

ON THE NORTHEAST CORNER of Santa Fe’s historic Plaza, at the intersection of Palace Avenue and Washington Street, sits an architecturally interesting yet unassuming adobe gallery. Its contents, in a way, can be traced to some of the oldest artisans in the Americas. While known as a crossroads of contemporary Western art, the Worrell Gallery, foremost, is identified with the multimedia visions of a single seer.

“I’ve had a good life, a rewarding one, better than I deserve,” offers artist Bill Worrell with humility and emotion quivering behind his Texas drawl. “I don’t know why the cosmic forces offered their revelations to me. But I’m grateful for being given the opportunity to honor them.”

Worrell’s distinctive “shamanistic” sculptures, paintings and other tactile creations are inspired by ancient pictographs, mostly those found in abundance along the confluence of the Lower Pecos River and the Rio Grande. They’re widely collected by influential individuals and museums, and they adorn many different public spaces. Additionally, each one carries a potent story.

As motifs, Worrell’s explorations are not based on mere superficial fascination. Rather, he channels the power of archetypal imagery first presented to him decades ago when he was forced to seek shelter from a violent storm. Calling his work a “primitive counterpoint” to 21st-century Realism, Worrell speaks a universal language that is universally recognizable.

His harrowing 1979 float down the Lower Pecos River in southern Texas, and his association with protecting the historic site, sound apocryphal if you hear the story second hand; and for Worrell, written accounts don’t come close to articulating the journey’s impact. 

Prior to his fateful float, Worrell was a struggling artist teaching at a small college in Texas and spending summers camping primitively in the Rockies. Worrell earned a degree in sociology and a minor in English from Texas Tech University and a master of fine arts in painting and drawing with a minor in sculpture from the University of North Texas. For 18 years, he taught art at Odessa College and Houston Baptist College and had a doctoral fellowship at the University of North Texas. He was inspired by the students and colleagues he met, but with his own inner spirit, he lacked clarity of direction.

A marathon hiker and boater, he received an assignment, on speculation, from Outside magazine to chronicle a canoe trip down the Pecos River on its run toward the Rio Grande. After witnessing dangerous lightning, gale-force winds and rising flash flood waters, Worrell and his paddling companions scrambled to take cover in a hidden cave-like alcove.

There, illuminated in sun and flashlight beams, were pictograph outlines of animals and people. It was not only a personal revelation that struck him like a thunderbolt, forever changing his artistic direction, but it was archeologically significant, too. Under the shelter of that alcove, he was shaken by his encounter with those ancient drawings and spent seven years trying to make sense of the imagery that visited him in his conscious living and dreams.

“The world,” says Worrell, “doesn’t embrace the artist as a matter of course. This happens when the artist is bold enough, creative enough and smart enough to face the odds.”

After Worrell came off the river, he was contacted by Dr. Carolyn Boyd, a noted archaeologist and executive director of Shumla Archaeological Research and Education Center. “She asked me what I felt when I walked into that cave. I think about the hush, the stillness and the silence that was speaking so loudly because the residue of the spirit and soul of the people who were there before still lingered,” he says, describing it almost like a transcendental religious experience.

His influence on others has been equally extraordinary as this tale of discovery. Later, Worrell guided actor Robert Redford down the river to see the site.

“Most artists are, by nature, selfish. They are preoccupied with what they are compelled to do — making art. Bill Worrell is an anomaly,” observes folklorist and author Gerald Hausman, who assisted Worrell in publishing his newly released and already acclaimed memoir, Outside The Lines. “There is no end to his day or his passion for creation. But he is also one of the kindest human beings in this hemisphere. He helps others as much as he helps himself. Maybe that is why he has been so successful as an artist.”

While visiting his abodes in Texas and New Mexico, Hausman says he constantly finds Worrell embraced by beauty. “The Navajo say, ‘Walk in beauty.’ Well, Bill not only walks in it, he steeps himself in it. His charm and fame may come from that, but also his childlike innocence. As the Bible says, ‘Be wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove.’ That is the way he is — smart, heartful and helpful, all at the same time.”

Arist Spider Johnson reflects back on that period of profound metamorphosis. Johnson met Worrell in 1968. “We were dating a couple of college roommate gals and we became fast friends, sharing a love for traveling backroads, a congenital irreverence for sacred cows and a gonzo philosophy,” he says, noting that he appreciated Worrell’s skill with watercolors even then. “And we have shared a deep friendship that has survived marriages, near-poverty, karmic detours and temporary bureaucracies. Worrell has always had an incurable curiosity about everything that compels an alternate world view and hence, tickles the creative impulse in others.”

Johnson notes that the “portentous river trip” down the Pecos galvanized Worrell’s approach to making art and brought a new, intense focus. “Clearly, that choice to bring his own interpretation to ancient American cave art has brought an awareness of its iconic beauty to generations of art patrons everywhere,” Johnson says. “With his commanding personal presence and generous penchant to share his knowledge with anyone, it’s hard to find someone who hasn’t been charmed by his art. He has, more than any other contemporary artist, made primitive art accessible to every man, and in a way that remains, like his persona, indelible.”

As Worrell initially started to translate his experience on the Pecos — as sculptures and then paintings — the works were not accepted by some galleries. “I know what it’s like to have your work rejected, and I also know how important it is to persevere as an artist, to keep believing even when those around you don’t understand,” he says. 

Eventually, in 1986, Worrell started showing his work at C.G. Rein Gallery and then the Howell Frank Gallery and the Contemporary Southwest Galleries, where his multimedia pieces became internationally recognized. One of Worrell’s many acclaimed signature pieces is a 17-foot monument bronze, The Maker of Peace, owned by the State of Texas, that overlooks the ancient Fate Bell rock shelter at Seminole Canyon State Historic Park west of Del Rio, Texas. 

In 2011, Jay and Mary Adams opened the Worrell Gallery with their namesake serving as an anchor for an incredible line-up of other artisans. “Bill’s work is very organic. It speaks to the spirituality in all of us,” Mary Adams says. “As a talent, Bill is a Renaissance man in every sense of the word. I love his reverence for those things that cannot be described or explained, his wisdom and love of nature. He is still a teacher at heart, always sharing his knowledge and skills.”

As a poet and singer-songwriter, Worrell’s lyrical prose has been published in books and set to music performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City. He has written in excess of 500 songs and more than a handful were performed by major recording artists. 

Kix Brooks, actor, film producer and half of the award-winning country duo, Brooks & Dunn, says Worrell is the kind of character who comes around only once in a lifetime. Brooks has performed at some of the legendary parties Worrell has held along his place on the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country.

Worrell’s younger sister, B.J. Worrell, has been his biggest supporter. She was there, he says, before anyone else. I asked her what makes her brother tick. “I can’t tell you, because it isn’t any one thing you can put a finger on, other than he is incredibly creative. He is the consummate inventor. In essence, he’s always been somewhat of a rule breaker, not in violating the law but in challenging restrictive superficial rules. He was always challenging the norm and he was determined never to be restricted by convention.”

And that, of course, is the philosophy of all great artists. The river experience, B.J. says, was the most profound event in his artistic life. “He felt a communion with ancient beings and he didn’t care if the artwork which emerged was ever accepted,” she says. “He felt compelled to do it for no other reason than that it spoke to something deep inside.”

Several people have compared Worrell to Bob Dylan, who famously said he didn’t know the source of many of his lyrics and songs but that they were channeled through him. Worrell is that rarity, Hausman says, “an artist who speaks about everything under the sun. He is the man with the brush, chisel, pen, the finder’s hand, the worker’s mind. He willingly takes us on the ride of his life and ours, telling us how he managed the impossible beauty of being an individual. In the process we learn how to be who we are — artists in our own right.”

When Worrell reflects on the arc of his notable career, he gets choked up. It is perhaps the only thing he is unable to explain in two or three dimensions, in the written or sung word. 

“I’ve been lucky,” he says. “I hope when people see my art or hear my songs, that they share my wonder of the ages. No matter where we are in time, we are interconnected. We may not always realize it, but art gives us a reason to believe and a means for sharing the awe.”

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