Living the Wild Life
A sculptor and artist from West Point has cut his own trail … leaving beauty behind him from coast to coast
Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Luisa Porter
Weldon Merchant never lies … ’cept for recreation or entertainment.
Riding beside him on the seat of a wagon pulled by two of his Spanish Mustangs, I’m immediately convinced this artist and sculptor, this bender and shiner of metals, is cut from different cloth.
The honorary Texas Ranger has been famous and infamous, by his own admission. He has tales to tell — of leaving West Point in the late ’60s for Greenwich Village, fashioning leather, silver, gold and stones for everyone from The Turtles and John Sebastian (“a great gentleman”) to Jim Morrison and Jerry Garcia … of the shop he had for a time in New Orleans … of horses he broke and 50-milers he raced in with some of the good ones … of living off the land from Vancouver to the Appalachians for a couple of years, with a canoe, a .22 rifle and a yellow dog.
“I could turn that dog out anywhere and he could find supper,” Merchant says, in tribute to an old companion long gone.
Somewhere along the trail, the handle “Wild Man” evolved, a reference to a Germanic legend, and a play on his initials and the brand he signs his work with.
“You’ll be disappointed to know that the ‘wild man’ is not from riotous living and consorting with lewd women — but not as disappointed as I am,” he chuckles. “It comes from growing your own, catching your own, living outdoors.”
Different cloth. It’s not just the stories, or the long braids (a nod to Chickasaw ancestry) or notable mustache and side whiskers. Nor is it only his “bachelor’s cow camp,” a curious habitat he’s created in Clay County. It isn’t simply the striking jewelry and sculptures he makes either. (One of his necklaces of sterling silver and antler tips is in the Smithsonian’s permanent collection. Similar pieces went to a former governor of Texas and to Willie Nelson.)
It’s all that, and more.
OF TIME AND HAINTS
Merchant returned to West Point in 1977. He didn’t mean to stay, but one thing led to another, as it often does.
“This was Merchant land before the white man came,” the rancher-artist says, adroitly steering the horses, Annie Marie and Colette, through a shallow gully. Three ecstatic blue heelers keep pace. One of them leaps into the wagon and winds around my legs every time we pause for introductions. I meet the whole clan — the longhorn cattle with their magnificent headdress that can span upwards of 7 feet, and the 18 or so mustangs that peacefully coexist with them.
“I was born on these ancestral lands,” my guide informs me, stopping the wagon under a massive sycamore that’s been around more than 60 years. Its peeling bark is a patchwork of white, brown and gray. A stiff wind stirs the leaves. The man with the reins in his creative hands points to a nearby ridge, saying Native Americans once lived there. He’s spent 40-something years researching records, so I believe him.
Thunder grumbles in the distance. Merchant laughs and concedes there might be a certain risk in all the solitary hours he spends out on the wagon.
“Those trace chains get to singin’ and the haints get to laughin’,” he says, as the horses move out and the hitch chains resume their chant.
He drives horses a lot these days, rather than riding them.
“I always said when I got too old to have a bronc for breakfast, I’d ride in the wagon,” Merchant begins, explaining his tradition of mounting an untrained horse on each birthday. “When I turned 52, I rode ’im, but when I got off ’im, I decided I’d dust off the old wagon,” he confesses. There is also a matter of a wagon wreck a while back that left him with broken ribs and dislocated knees.
“It’d a’killed a good man, so I knew I didn’t have anything to worry about,” he says, with a hint of self-deprecation.
WHERE YOU COME FROM
Much about Weldon Merchant seems connected to what came before. It’s evident in talk of ancestors, in using horses for everything possible, even clipping pastures with an old horse-drawn sickle bar mower.
To him, it’s simple: “I was entrusted by elders to keep the old ways.”
The jewelry he makes often reflects those ties to the past. Amulets, he calls them. Rather than frills and filigree, Merchant’s pieces have presence and heft. Native American influence surfaces in some designs, like the wind cross. It evokes the four winds that cleared the darkness, drying the earth for life when all was water.
Horses figure prominently, too, and have since the West Point native found a butcher knife under the house when he was 5 or 6.
“First thing I carved was a horse’s head,” he says. “And I remember gettin’ spanked in sixth grade for drawin’ horses on my papers.”
Merchant’s mother, a tailor, taught him how to cut patterns when he was a child. Being able to sew, she told him, meant one had common sense and could do just about anything. Her son bore that out by working with every medium he could get his hands on, from wood to bones. He painted, too. And of sculpting, he says, “A sculptor cannot fool you: A muscle is a muscle; an eye is an eye. He has to see things from all dimensions. He cannot fool the viewer.”
Merchant produces religious art as well, including the 12-foot steel cross at Starkville’s Trinity Presbyterian Church. Another impressive piece is a near 4,000-pound, hammered copper repoussé (made without molds) in Memphis. The relief sculpture forms an entrance canopy at the Brinkley Plaza at Main and Monroe. “The Angels Attending Glory,” as it’s titled, is inexorably linked to a near-death experience Merchant had at a hospital only a few blocks from the site. He was 9 at the time.
In his living quarters, he’s surrounded by anomalies, wonders and tools of his crafts. In one corner, almost hidden, stands a relief of Christ in an 8-by-4-foot sheet of aluminum. The word “exquisite” comes to mind.
When asked about this recurring eternal theme, he responds, “Everything goes back to the path I was put on when I was 9 years old. Death and forever are always a heartbeat and a few breaths away. The human condition is very temporary.”
At 66, the self-taught Merchant has come a long way from the era when he “went to a party in Austin one weekend and came back eight months later.” Like an old cowboy hat he once described, it’s been a “brush-scuffed, tear- and blood-stained” journey at times. Through it, his art always found a way to emerge.
“If you’re an artist, it’s a dirty, dangerous life,” he says with feeling. “You’re worn out. It takes everything you’ve got.”