Las Vegas, N.M — Nationally known sculptor Duke Sundt designed a commemorative belt buckle for the Highlands University President’s Gala: Dollars for Scholars.
The gala is a scholarship fundraiser that will also celebrate Highlands University President Jim Fries’ five-year anniversary.
Sundt’s belt buckles will be on the sale for $75 at the gala and through the university’s Alumni Office. Eight limited-edition buckles made with gold and silver will sell for $300. Sundt also donated two small sculptures for the silent auction.
Sundt, 63, a former rodeo rider and ranch foreman, is best known for his bronze sculptures that depict cowboy life. He lives in Sapello N.M.
“I worked the bareback bronc riding event while rodeoing between 1965 and 1971,” Sundt said. “I then chose the next hardest way to make a living: being an artist.”
His sculptures have been featured in national magazines such as Time and Western Horseman. The longhorn sculpture Sundt created for the University of Texas centennial made the cover of Sports Illustrated.
“Western Americana is my first love in sculpting,” Sundt said.
Sundt, who grew up in a military family, is also known for his larger-than-life sculpture monuments that honor U.S. soldiers who served from World War I through the Vietnam era. His current project is a 14-foot-tall Vietnam monument commissioned by the state of Texas for its capitol building in Austin.
Sundt’s family roots run deep in Las Vegas. His father, Harald Sundt, was born and raised in Las Vegas and graduated from West Point in 1932; the beginning of a distinguished military career. During World War II, he served as the 607th Tank Destroyer Battalion commander with Gen. George Patton’s forces Europe.
Harald Sundt’s last military posting in Copenhagen, Denmark sparked Duke’s early interest in sculpture.
“Public sculpture is everywhere in Copenhagen. It was fascinating and had a huge influence on me,” Sundt said.
As a teenager, each summer Sundt lived and worked at the family’s ranch in Sapello Canyon near Las Vegas.
“Every American kid in a military family searches for an identity because you move so often,” Sundt said. “My cousins here were cowboy kids, living the ranching life. That’s what appealed to me, and I decided to be a cowboy. Later, this became the subject for my sculptures.”
Sundt didn’t start off as an art major in college. He was studying engineering and hating it. His brother, Chuck, encouraged Duke to study art. He earned his BFA from New Mexico State University in 1971.
“My first bronze piece, Steer Roper, was cast in 1969 at the Nambe Mills in Pojoaque, N.M. from a wax carving I made for Chuck for Christmas. My mother, Bobbie, was a musician and inspired me to be creative, and pursue my art,” Sundt said.
After graduating, Sundt took a job at the Stewart Ranch near Watrous, N.M. and continued to sculpt, launching his lifelong passion for wearing two hats: cowboy and sculptor.
Reflecting on his life as a sculptor, Sundt said: “I’ve been so blessed that my work sells and I make a living doing what I love. I can’t wait to get up in the morning and get out to my studio. I enjoy it as much as I did 30 year ago, maybe more.”
Sundt’s family history is also intertwined with Highlands University.
“My grandfather, M.M. Sundt, was a poor Norwegian immigrant who settled in Las Vegas in about 1890,” Sundt said. “He was a carpenter, and his first construction job was to build a scaffold for a double hanging at the Las Vegas Plaza. He worked hard to establish his contracting business and eventually built the university’s Ilfeld Auditorium. His son and my uncle, Thoralf Sundt, was the architect for Ilfeld.”
Ilfeld Auditorium is a northern New Mexico architectural treasure that is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. It still stands as a local landmark and popular performing arts venue.
Sundt said over the years, his relatives have attended Highlands, including two aunts who graduated from the university when it was still called a normal school and became teachers.
“I think Highlands is very important for the community. It’s an honor to help out and support scholarships,” Sundt said. “The belt buckle design is an oval with a bas-relief of a bronc rider.”
“Duke is passionate and meticulous about how he portrays the subjects in his sculptures, which romanticize the old west,” said Sharon Caballero, executive director for the Highlands University Foundation. “He has an honorable nature that embodies the very best of the cowboy spirit. He’s an amazing human being and artist.”
Tickets and more details about the President’s Gala are online at www.purpletieaffair.comor at the Alumni Office, 905 University Ave., or call 505-454-3248.