JAL – Brian Norwood has lived a long, storied life.
In addition to heading up the Jal Historical Society and Museum, Inc., with his wife, Karen, he lists painter, journalist, magazine editor, surveyor, sketch artist and sign maker as just a few of the things he’s done to bring in a buck, he said.
But the work Brian is probably best known for was conceived as a way to bring an boost to a flagging Jal economy, he said. And you’d be hard-pressed to miss it, located off Country Club Road on a piece of Woolworth Trust land just north of town.
“The Trail Ahead” is a massive metal installation featuring several horse-mounted cowboys driving a herd of cattle south along the ridge line on the west side of the highway leading into Jal.
When he started the piece in 1999 with the help of a welder friend, Gene Armstrong, it was completely new territory, he said.
“I’d never cut a piece of metal in my life,” Brian said. “‘The Trail Ahead,’ at the time we did it, was primarily an economic development tool.
“The local economy was so bad, we frankly weren’t sure Jal was going to be around much longer. I did the sculpture to draw people in and, thankfully, it’s done that.”
In the intervening years, “The Trail Ahead” has been featured in tourism magazines, periodicals focused on sites to see while traveling, and in newspapers across the country. Brian said people have even told him they’ve heard “The Trail Ahead” talked about on National Public Radio.
The original idea was he’d design the piece, then raise money to hire welders to cut and assemble “The Trail Ahead,” Brian said.
When he started, donations weren’t the problem — people gave generously to see the sculpture completed.
But finding the welder or welders to do the actual work was difficult if not impossible.
All the welders the Norwood’s knew were busy working in the oil and gas fields or further afield. Until one day, while Brian was working on a mural in Jal, he finally broke down and said a little prayer.
“I prayed, ‘God, I need a welder,’” Brian recalled recently. “The thought had no more than gotten out of my head when Gene Armstrong pulled up, got out of his pickup and said, ‘I’ve been thinking. You’re going to need a welder.’”
Armstrong had already convinced Brian he could cut the massive pieces of metal. Brian used some of the donation money to buy a plasma cutter and four, 10-foot by 40-foot pieces of quarter-inch steel.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Armstrong “volunteered his welding services and, eventually, we got it done,” Brian said.
He’s not resting on his laurels. Brian continues to produce art, including a large mural in the recently-opened Jal City Hall in the renovated J.L Burke Junior High School on the west side of town.
And current Jal Superintendent of Schools Brian Snider commissioned Brian to do a series of murals in one of the hallways of Jal Elementary School focused around the history of Jal.
“I think it’s really cool that, when Brian was in school, he was always drawing pictures, he worked on the yearbook staff,” Karen said. “Now with the new schools (Brian was asked) to do several murals for the new elementary (and) a big steel panther that’s hanging in the school cafeteria.”
Brian grew up around art, he said.
His mother Clarice Norwood and her side of the family were involved in the arts, and an uncle ran a framing shop in Hobbs.
“I had the exposure to art from them,” he said. “My mother especially was more artistic than she ever gave herself credit for being. She was a big influence on me.
“One of the stories I’ve heard throughout my life is … I always got in trouble for drawing on the walls. Thankfully, now I get paid for that.”