CA member Mehl Lawson is an unlikely artist. Growing up in Santa Ana, Calif., he was rarely exposed to art, and early on, his life took him down a very different path. Lawson had rarely been exposed to horses, either, but he had loved them since he was a small boy. When he was 15, while in high school, he went to work as an apprentice for a show horse trainer in Vista, Calif. There he honed his skills as a trainer, not knowing his kinship with horses would one day be translated to bronze by his own hands.
As a child, Lawson’s family didn’t visit galleries or collect art, but he always enjoyed dabbling in it. “Anytime I happened onto art, I was attracted to it,” he says.
Despite the rigors of horse training, Lawson continued to sketch and admire art whenever possible. After he married in 1969, his bride Barbara noticed his interest and encouraged him to build upon it. One day, the young couple was driving through Oklahoma City on their way to Missouri when they passed a sign for the Cowboy Hall of Fame. The detour they took that day changed the course of Lawson’s life. As it happens, the CAA Sale & Exhibition was going on, and the Lawsons took in the show.
“I was totally blown away by all that art,” he remembers. “It had a big influence on me.”
At the sale, he purchased some books and spent the rest of his vacation reading about the CAA and cowboy art. Something inside him changed, and he began visiting galleries, observing artists and getting involved with art in any way he could.
“I realized people could make a living as an artist,” he says, “and the direction of my life gradually started taking a new course.”
In 1979, he finally reached the point where he was making more money from art than he was with his horses. He phased out of the horse business and bought a house with a studio a few miles from the beach in Bonita in San Diego County where he could pursue his art full-time. Initially Lawson used their converted garage as his studio, but he eventually outgrew it. Since he wasn’t riding as much, Lawson and a contractor friend tore down the old barn on the property and put a new studio in its place, complete with a storage room and a patio. This light, airy space can accommodate life-sized sculptures.
“To do anything bigger than that is a stretch,” he laughs.
When Lawson had a life-and-a-half sized commission for Art Nicholas of Wagonhound Land and Livestock, he had to get creative. He turned to the Bonita Museum and Cultural Center. He needed the vast gallery space in which to sculpt, and the new museum was looking for a draw to attract visitors. The arrangement proved to be a perfect fit for both parties.
“People would come in every week to check on my progress like I was part of the entertainment” he recalls. “It was a lot more comfortable than my studio would have been, and it sure made it a nice place to work.”
While sculpting consumes the bulk of Lawson’s days, he finds time to braid rawhide. Lawson is an active member of the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association, an organization devoted to preserving the craftsmanship of traditional gear. Lawson finds time to ride his beloved horses, too.
“I still ride five days a week and train horses on a limited basis,” he explains.
With two shows, a wedding and a honeymoon in his immediate future, Lawson is busier than ever and enjoying every moment of it.
~written by Julie Wilson, JFW Communications