Celebrating Cattle Ranching History through Arts

By: Sharie Turgeon, Okeechobee Main Street Executive Director
Photography by Sharon Jones

“This needs to be in Okeechoboee”  These words spoken in Leesburg, FL by Bridgette Waldau, were the beginning of a significant and historical art installation in Okeechobee, FL.

The Cattle Drive Sculpture Project was years in the making, starting in 2015 when Bridgette, Arts & Culture Alliance Director of Okeechobee Main Street [OKMS], visited the Brownwood development of The Villages in Leesburg, FL and saw a bronze cattle drive installation. She knew such a work of art would be perfect for Okeechobee. „

Fast Forward to August 6, 2022. The Okeechobee community celebrated the legacy of Florida’s cattle industry with the dedication of the 10-piece, larger than life, bronze cattle drive sculpture installation in the Cattlemen’s Square of Flagler Park in downtown Okeechobee.

“Without Bridgette’s vision, we wouldn’t be standing here today,” OKMS President Angie Griffin said at the dedication. “This will be a legacy for Okeechobee for years and years to come.”

The sculpture project started in 2018 shortly after OKMS gained recognition from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs for the Flagler Park butterfly garden, featuring an art installation of giant butterfly sculptures. This project resulted in the creation of the OKMS Arts & Cultural Alliance [ACA], a local art agency for Okeechobee County. At the organization meeting, Bridgette expressed she had two top items on her bucket list for the new ACA. The first item was to create a local art center, and the second was to install a cattle drive sculpture. The ACA decided to initiate the sculpture project, researching the artist of the Brownwood sculpture and fundraising strategies. “Before I could take a breath, plans were laid out, and the project began,” Bridgette said.„

The City Council gave ACA permission to put the art installation in downtown Okeechobee, Flagler Park #5. With a place set, the ACA then consulted with local ranchers in designing plans for the art project. It was vital that this cattle drive sculpture reflected Okeechobee.

It was also important that the public art become a community project. There were sponsorship levels for the individual pieces, but that only paid for about half the project—the rest of the funding came from other donors: small and large ranches, corporations, and private citizens. Bridgette said, “Kathy Scott, an ACA member, single-handedly raised more than half of the funds for the project. Her tenacity, along with the generous support of the community, made this project possible. Understanding the economic impact, the Tourist Development of Okeechobee County also contributed to the sculptures.

The installation is a representation of over 200 ranches in Okeechobee County. “Art provides a sense of place and purpose in the community,” said Brad Phares, who is both an artist and a rancher. “The sculptures are based on the Okeechobee County cattle industry of the 1950s and 1960s. The cattle industry in Florida has a long and inspiring history.

Artist J. Michael Wilson from Lehi, Utah was commissioned to do the impressive project that consists of 10 sculptures: cowboy riding a horse, cowboy at a fence, brahma bull, 5 head of cattle, calf, and cow dog.

Michael based the sculptures on photos provided by ranchers and his own knowledge of animals. Wilson studied to be a veterinarian before opting for a career in the arts. At a special Artist’s Reception held on August 5, he explained, “Because of Covid, there have been quite a few disruptions. I just kept working. I love doing my work, always thinking positive. Sculptural welders and artisans at Mountain Trails Gallery and Adonis Bronze Foundry also worked with him on the project.

Michael said, “My hope for this project and Okeechobee is to leave a lasting reminder of the importance provided by local cattle owners and breeders from the last 500 years—a rare breed of community, integrity, and pride. As the world is rapidly changing, it’s valuable to know our roots. I believe it is important to have a hands-on approach to fine art with access available to everyone. This art is now placed in a beautiful setting, to enjoy all year long.”

He is inspired by the generations of ranchers in Okeechobee. “I create works of art, but what you guys have in Okeechobee is a beautiful masterpiece,” Michael stated at the dedication.

Bridgette said, “It has been an honor to have worked with Michael during this 4-year process. I greatly admire his talent, and I am privileged to call him my friend.”

The park setting for the project was significant because the ACA, along with ranchers, wanted to give the visitors the feel of stepping on a ranch. All the pieces are designed to give a sense of movement. When walking into the park, it appears as if the cattle are walking on a wide-open ranch. Bridgette stated, “Michael’s individual art pieces are each unique, but we want the viewer to look at all the sculptures as one piece of art that reflects a moment in time.”

OKMS values partnerships with government and community leaders to help create a “place” in downtown Okeechobee. And those partnerships were crucial in creating a “place” for the sculpture.

The Economic Council of Okeechobee County reached out to OKMS during the beginning stages of the project and consulted with OKMS to create a vision and master plan for Downtown Flagler Parks. Architectural firm Calvin, Giordano & Associates worked closely with OKMS to design the footprint for the sculpture project.„

The City of Okeechobee, Okeechobee County, and the Frank Altobello Foundation funded the infrastructure and landscaping of the park. General Contractor Mark Brandel, who volunteered his valuable time, supervised the sub-contractors, many of whom also donated in-kind services. Together they created a perfect canvas for the sculptures.

The design of the park is set up so that visitors can walk, day or night, around the entire installation. The sidewalk around the installation has informational markers and natural stone benches to sit and view the project. There is also an educational kiosk with information about the ranching industry, artist information, the bronze process, a listing of all the donors and the ACA information.

Okeechobee County Clerk, Jerry Bryant, stated, “Bridgette, this exhibit is one of the most beautiful, meaningful, exquisite projects ever done in Okeechobee since the construction of the historic courthouse, city hall and two brick schoolhouses. It is also one of the boldest undertakings. Our community owes you and all the principal movers of Main Street much gratitude for your efforts in making this a reality. But mostly, thank you, Bridgette, for your foresight, imagination, tireless efforts, passion, and your persistence in seeing this project to completion.”

For generations to come, families will get a glimpse of their heritage, and visitors will understand the importance of the ranch industry and how it shaped Okeechobee County. “When Bridgette first told the City Council about this project, I thought she was crazy,” said Mayor Dowling Watford at the dedication. “It is quite a testament that our community came together and made this park possible. Okeechobee is a unique place. This is the real Florida.”

This sculpture project preserves the legacy of Florida heritage for many generations to come, allowing the essence of the Florida Cowboy to come alive. The ACA’s mission is to create public art reflecting the uniqueness of Okeechobee, and the community stepped up to create a symbol of the quality of the lifestyle in Okeechobee. The Arts & Culture Alliance is proud of what Okeechobee did.

“Having a vision is easy, but getting it done is another story. I want to thank OKMS, my ACA team, City and County leaders, donors, along with all others in the community for supporting this project and working so hard to make it happen. I am so humbled by the kind words and support, but one person could not have done this alone,” said Bridgette.

The Cattle Drive Sculpture art installation is easy to find, located in the fifth block of SW Park Street in Flagler Park, that runs alongside Hwy State Road 70.

A list of donors, contractors and all who made this possible, can be found on ACA’s website at www.OkeechobeeArts.org . For more information contact OKMS at 863-357-6246 or visit the new ACA Art Center at 111 NE 2nd Street. Yes, ACA’s first bucket list item of opening an art center also became a reality last year.