Casper sculptor Chris Navarro has created an impressive number of large-format bronze works, and even more smaller sculptures that have won awards and accolades at the highest levels of the art world.
But two large pieces in Casper are examples of how Navarro’s creativity literally shines through.
His bronze “Sacred Heart of Jesus,” which stands in front of Our Lady of Fatima church, facing west on CY Avenue, and “Essence of Rex” at the entrance to the Tate Geological Museum are both illuminated from within using LED lights, which Navarro said really brings them to life.
“Both sculptures were commissioned by Mrs. Marialyce Tobin of Casper, and she requested that light radiate from both sculptures,” Navarro told Cowboy State Daily. “It was challenging to figure out how to make the lighting work.”
Tobin, who died in 2021 at the age of 97, was an attorney, longtime Casper resident and philanthropist, and the daughter of Wyoming’s 21st governor, Frank Barrett. Navarro said Tobin was “a remarkable lady.”
“She commissioned me for three sculptures,” Navarro said, referring to the two prominent Casper works, as well as a sculpture of the Virgin Mary, which was placed at the cemetery where her parents are buried in Lusk.
“And she died just a few weeks before we dedicated (the last one),” he said.
‘Essence Of Rex’
The first “lit” sculpture Tobin approached Navarro to create was a giant Tyrannosaurus rex that she intended to be donated to Casper College and placed at the entrance to the Tate Geological Museum.
“When she asked me to do a dinosaur with light coming out of it, I said, ‘Yeah, I could do that,’” he said. “And then I just figured it out. I mean, the first part is, you’ve got to believe you can do it, to actually do it. If you believe it, it'll happen.”
“The sculpture was originally sculpted in clay,” Navarro explained. “It was a very complex design with over 100 pieces that had to be molded, cast in bronze and welded together.”
Navarro decided the best way to have light radiate from the sculpture was to make one side skeletal, while the other side would be fleshed out. He designed the work as a split-view composition – one side is an anatomical skeleton, while the other side is fleshed out like a real T. rex.
“This would also allow me to put in an internal lighting system – LED lights that would run through the sculpture,” he said. “Having light radiate out from within the sculpture on the skeletal side would give the piece a very unique and dynamic effect.”
Navarro completed “Essence of Rex,” which stands 13 feet tall, is 28 feet long and weighs in at a prehistoric 5,500 pounds, in 2014. And to introduce Rex to the community, college administrators decided to use the sculpture as the centerpiece of its entry into that year’s Central Wyoming Fair and Rodeo parade.
But Navarro wasn’t content just to ride on the parade float. The former Casper College bull rider decided he’d rather ride the T. rex.
“Once the parade started, I just climbed up on his back and I was riding ‘Essence of Rex’ in the parade down Center Street in my hometown,” Navarro recalled. “I wore my old Casper College rodeo team vest – and it had been 38 years since I last wore it, (but) I thought I should break it back out to ride a T. rex. It was a little tight, but it sure was a great day.
“It was a blast, and something I will always remember.”
‘Sacred Heart Of Jesus’
Tobin commissioned Navarro to create a second sculpture not long after he completed “Essence of Rex.”
“She says, ‘I want Jesus to have his arms outstretched, and I want him to be protecting Casper, and I want light to come out of this sculpture, too,’” Navarro recalled. “So I thought about it, and I came up with the design of the ‘Sacred Heart,’ and making the light come out of the Sacred Heart.”
This monumental sculpture stands 17 feet tall, and one of the largest works Navarro has done.
“I'm really proud of how it turned out,” he said.
Navarro said figuring out how to light this sculpture was tricky. He built a mount inside the body to house the lighting system and covered the heart area with plexiglass.
“The sculpture is hollow inside, so I wired it so the electrical wiring came up from the bottom of the sculpture and all the way up to (the heart),” he said.
The bronze wreath of thorns that crosses the illuminated heart is removable in case the bulb burns out, but Navarro doesn’t anticipate that will be a problem for a while.
“I went and got an LED, a really powerful one, and they last for, like, 20,000 hours,” he said. “And we have it on a timer, so it comes on every night when it starts to get dark.”
Navarro put thought into the base of the sculpture as well, featuring white doves circling Jesus, which are placed at the north, south, east and west corners and also symbolize the four gospels of the New Testament. But more importantly, Navarro said he was concerned with getting Jesus’ face just right.
“When I was trying to sculpt Jesus' face, I had a very hard time doing it, because I was trying to show wisdom and compassion,” he said. “And those are hard, subtle things to capture. I worked really hard on it, but I think I was able to come across and capture that emotion.”
Navarro’s sculptures are best experienced in person, of course, but for anyone who isn’t able to seek them out, the next best thing might be a video showcasing some of his most impressive pieces.
That’s why Navarro has uploaded an impressive 140 videos to his YouTube channel, where viewers can get a behind-the-scenes look at the artist’s work.
“I can't think of a better way to show sculpture three dimensionally than in a video,” he said. “I've been making videos for the last 20 years.”
Navarro’s most recent sculpture, called “Six Miles South,” will be dedicated in August of this year at the Central Wyoming Fairgrounds. It is his 36th monument in a career spanning nearly 40 years.
And the 67-year-old artist is by no means at the end of his career.
“I'm trying to leave my mark in this world,” said Navarro. “As an artist, these sculptures are going to be around a long time after I'm gone. I believe I have 13 sculptures in Casper right now, and I’d like to leave another 13 before I go.”