rounders award

“La Jornada” by artist Reynaldo “Sonny” Rivera and Betty Sabe, located at Albuquerque Museum of Art. Photo by Michael D. Tedesco

In 1990, former New Mexico Agriculture Secretary Frank DuBois created The Rounders Award to honor those who live, promote and articulate the Western way of life. The inaugural recipient and primary model for the award’s criteria was Max Evans, who wrote the classic Western novel The Rounders, which was later made into a movie starring Henry Fonda and Glenn Ford.

Today, even at 94 years old, Evans still recalls the beginning of his Western way of life – an experience that he credits for the inspiration behind his first book.

“I worked on the range as a cowboy from the time I was 12 years old. It’s not an easy way of life,” he says. “When I was young, I thought it was magic how cowboys had such a grand sense of humor. No matter what the tragedies were, they figured out a way to laugh at it. That was a wonderful way of survival.”

To date, the New Mexico Department of Agriculture (NMDA) has awarded over 20 artists in Western culture across the state. Evans always looks forward to meeting the newest honorees at the awards ceremony.

“It means a lot. I’m very proud of the people who have won the award,” he says.

rounders award

Reynaldo “Sonny” Rivera, U.S. Navy Veteran, Barber, Sculptor and Albuquerque, New Mexico resident has over 40 public art commissions to his credit. Photo by Michael D. Tedesco

2014 Rounders Award Recipient Sonny Rivera

In 2014, Reynaldo “Sonny” Rivera won The Rounders Award for his representational and impressionistic sculptures that move, talk, evoke emotion and desire to be touched.

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Growing up, Rivera would sketch whenever he could while saving images and ideas in his mind to paint later. Whether creating special art projects on the bulletin board in first grade, traveling with the U.S. Navy or hairstyling, art has always been an important part of his life.

However, it wasn’t until he moved 300 miles across the state from Las Cruces to Santa Fe that he felt his eyes open to all kinds of art. He made the life-changing decision to attend art school in Chicago, Italy, Mexico and Arizona.

For the past 40 years, sculpting has been his full-time profession. But, he still remembers his parents’ farm and first drawing its many animals together with his mom.

“My inspiration comes from nature,” he says. Also, “I remember one art teacher in Chicago, saying, ‘To be a good artist, you’ve got to think like a kid. Never grow up.’ So at 80, I’m still wondering what I’m going to do when I grow up.”

Sonny’s majestic sculptures show the essence of the Western way of life, captured in space and time.

rounders award

“Journeys End” by Reynaldo “Sonny” Rivera, (1938), American sculptor. Photo by Michael D. Tedesco

2017 Rounders Award Recipient Rosemary Wilkie

In 2017, NMDA recognized Rosemary Wilkie, a nationally known saddle maker.

Wilkie is proud to be the first of three generations of women saddle makers, which includes her daughter-in-law and granddaughters. When she first got started in 1992, it was because her 5-year-old son had an ornery pony whose little saddle needed repairs.

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She recalls how “repairing saddles and tack is just something we had to do for ourselves. I didn’t have any equipment then, but I tried the best I could,” using whatever materials were available, even the top of an old boot. Soon, she started picking up used saddles, fixing them and reselling them. Then one day, Wilkie had the lucky chance to purchase a sewing machine and other tools from a saddle maker who was going out of business. As the previous owner helped her pack it up, he explained what each tool was and how to use it. There was also an unmade saddle included.

“The amazing thing was, I remembered what he told me about those tools and when I got home, I put that saddle together. That was my very first saddle.” Wilkie only truly “felt in my heart that I was a saddle maker” after studying tooling as an apprentice under a local saddle maker and completing her ninth saddle.

After the apprentice program, she had people waiting in line for her saddles. Eventually, through the New Mexico Arts division, Wilkie became a mentor for future generations of saddle makers, determined to help keep the great arts of the past alive.

“It’s not for money, but because I really enjoy doing it. Making the saddles for the cowboys has been really exciting for me. I like fitting their horses to a saddle and I enjoy the cowboy life.”

In addition to Evans, Rivera and Wilkie, The Rounders Award has recognized some of the finest artists of Western culture over the years. It’s a tribute that will continue to preserve “the cowboy way of life” for many generations to come.