Bill Owen was born in 1942 in Gila Bend, Arizona to a mother who was an artist and a father who had been a cowboy throughout the early 1900s. These influences shaped his desire to be an artist and cultivated his interest in the cowboy lifestyle. Having inherited the God-given talent, it was only natural he would strive to become an artist who chronicles the lives and works of the contemporary cowboy.
Bill has exhibited at the Whitney Museum in Cody, Wyoming, the Grand Palais in Paris, France, and at the Western Art Show in Beijing, China. In 1993 Bill became a member and staff artist of Rancheros Visitadores and that same year was awarded the Frederic Remington Award for Artistic Merit by the Cowboy Hall of Fame. In 1996 the prestigious Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma honored Bill as their Rendezvous Artist and at the 2003 Prix de West Invitational Exhibition and Sale he became the first recipient of “Express Ranches Great American Cowboy Award.”
Inducted into the Cowboy Artists of America in 1973, Bill has served as CAA President three times and earned numerous medals and awards at the annual show. Two awards that are especially meaningful to Bill are the CAA Award and the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association Award for Best Portrayal of a Cowboy Subject.
In 1989, while practicing for a rodeo, Bill survived a freak accident which resulted in the loss of sight in his right eye, affecting his depth perception and forcing him to give up sculpting. He never allowed himself to consider this loss a handicap but greatly missed the medium for thirteen years, successfully resuming sculpting in 2002.
For all of Bill’s artistic achievements, he is especially proud of The Arizona Cowpuncher’s Scholarship Organization, which he founded in 1995 to help finance college educations for young people from the Arizona ranching community.
When you ask critics or casual fans of Western art about their impressions of Bill Owen’s work, the word realism is sure to arise, likely within the first sentence of each reply. Within the genre of cowboy art, in which the accurate depiction of detail is often paramount, Owen had an unequaled knack for realistic portrayals of ranch cowboys at work.
He surely saw himself, at least in part, as a documentarian, as evidenced by his true-to-life renderings of even the minor details in a painting’s storyline: the kink in a rope; the once-white face of a Hereford cow, faded gray by layers of dust; the visible ribs on a horse that’s not wintered well; the Rorschach sweat stains on a cowboy’s hat; or the way in which late-afternoon shadows play across that cowboy’s shirt.
Owen’s work pulled a viewer into a scene. Studying one of his paintings, you can feel the grime on your face and the trickle of sweat down your back. Your throat tightens and your eyes narrow at the inescapable dust that surrounds you. You’re bombarded with the bellowing of cows. And you share the cowboy subject’s fatigue, as well as his unapologetic lack of interest in an easier way of life.
Still, Owen’s work was — is — about more than mere documentation. Owen saw the art that surrounded, permeated, cowboys and their work. He found inspiration in the unequaled landscapes shaped by grass and water, big skies and sculpted earth, and felt a storyteller’s compulsion to share the plot lines he saw in ranching life, narratives built around peace and chaos, joy and struggle, and the subtle relationships linking cowboys, horses and cattle. Owen, though, used the tools of design, light and color to present his scenes in ways that transcended realism.
“Bill had a distinct technique, a painterly style,” says Martin Grelle, vice president of the Cowboy Artists of America. “As detailed as Bill’s work is, he still had a looseness, a softness in the way he handled paint. His paintings could be detailed without being photographic, and his lighting and colorations were spot on, with great value contrasts.”
Owen, 71, passed away June 15, 2013, while photographing cowboys at the Diamond A Ranch, located near Seligman, Arizona. Such excursions were routine for the Kirkland, Arizona artist, who based his work upon real people, settings and events.
Born in 1942, Owen seemed predestined for a career as a cowboy artist. His mother was a painter; his father had worked as a ranch cowboy in the early 1900s. Owen drew inspiration from each parent’s path, cowboying in his youth and teaching himself the fundamentals of art. His experiences on horseback, competing in rodeos and working on ranches, shaped his identity and artistic direction. Owen became a CAA member in 1973, served three times as the group’s president, and received nearly three dozen awards for paintings, drawings and sculptures appearing in CAA exhibitions. Owen also received the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum’s 1993 Frederic Remington Award for Artistic Merit; the 2003 Prix de West Express Ranches Great American Cowboy Award, in its inaugural presentation; and the 2008 C.M. Russell Art Auction Honorary Chairman’s Award. Despite such accolades, Owen’s career faced serious challenges: after the loss of sight in his right eye in a 1989 roping accident, he gave up sculpting due to changes in his depth perception, successfully resuming work in the medium in 2002.
“When Bill lost his eye, people wondered about the effect on his ability to see perspective,” Grelle says. “But it somehow made him an even better painter. Having the perspective of only one eye, it was amazing how he could create such depth in his work. He’d always been gifted in that way, but it astounded me how much he seemed to improve, and the fact that he could achieve such an impressive three-dimensional aspect.” Owen’s process of gathering research on the ranches that would become settings for his paintings set an example for other artists as to the value of total immersion into a culture being depicted. It was an ethic that allowed Owen to produce work built not upon manufactured heroes, but upon a celebration of the heroism he found in reality. The resulting body of work drew attention far outside the geographic American West, earning inclusion in exhibitions from Paris to Beijing.
“Bill took a lot of time with each of his paintings. He worked on only a limited number of paintings in a given year, and kept tight control over the outlets of his work,” says Phil Berkebile, owner of the Great American West Gallery. Owen’s work is marketed exclusively by the Grapevine, Texas, gallery. “Bill was less interested in the economic aspect of art and more interested in painting subjects he wanted to depict, and doing it in a way that met his high standard. A piece didn’t leave his hands unless it was his best effort.”
Owen also gave back to the ranching culture that served as his inspiration. In 1995, he founded The Arizona Cowpunchers Scholarship Organization, an education fund benefitting children from Arizona ranching families. To date, ACSO has awarded more than $300,000 in scholarships. “He was such a proponent of the cowboy lifestyle, and concerned that making a living as a cowboy was increasingly difficult,” Berkebile says. “Bill was a very traditional person, with old school values, and he loved the cowboy way of life.” He is survived by his wife, Valerie, who was an active supporter of Bills passion and interest in the CAA. —A.J. Mangum
CAA Member since 1973
Born: January 23, 1942