Sonora, Sedona, and Since
Sunup crept slowly into the cold shadowed canyons of old Sonora. The vaqueros huddled close by a campfire to ease the bone-deep chill left behind by the November night. Three gringo cowboys stood with the vaqueros, sharing tin cups of strong camp coffee and warming their bridle bits at the fire as they listened for the sound of horses coming in. The three cowboys did not seem out of place in the primitive Mexican cow camp. Borders are not barriers for cowboys. The commonality of their calling transcends such difficulties as different languages and the like, as is also the way with artists and with art.
Those three cowboys who stood at the vaqueros’ fire on that frosty fall morning in 1964 were Charlie Dye, John Hampton, and Joe Beeler – each one adept as a painter of Western subjects and wise in the ways of open country and cattle. And there, in the crucible of a cow camp, the spark was struck that would fuse together the pure elemental essences of cowboys and art. Crossing back over the border into Arizona when the roundup was over, those three men brought with them the vivid impressions of their adventure, along with a strong shared sense of friendship and the origins of an idea, which, when fully fleshed out, would become the Cowboy Artists of America.
These were the heirs to a cowboy artist tradition that traced back to others, like Charlie Russell and Will James, and to the lean legacy of a scant handful of artists who brought to their paintings and sculpture an air of authenticity achieved through a hands-on and horseback perspective. Western art, and particularly that portraying cowpunchers, had always been the province of solitary types who prowled, like old coyotes, alone at the ragged edge of the cultural mainstream. But it is the nature of all of God’s creatures, even cowboy artists and coyotes, to crave the comfort and company of their own kind.
Charlie Dye, John Hampton, and Joe Beeler were all three accomplished artists with successful careers and established individual reputations by the time they found themselves together in that Mexican cow camp in 1964. Thinking back on that time below the border, each of them knew that they had been enlivened and inspired by the experience because they had been there and shared it all together. All three lived in Arizona, and they stayed closer in touch now, encouraging each other’s efforts and swapping stories about horses and art. They sought out others too, who, like themselves, kept a boot in each of the two different worlds of cowboys and artists, and seemed somehow not to belong entirely in either.
A hot sun hung in the bright blue Arizona sky on the afternoon of June 23, 1965. George Phippen, who also painted cowboy pictures, drove over from Prescott to join Dye, Hampton, and Beeler at Sedona’s Oak Creek Tavern, where the beer was cold and kept coming. Phippen, like the other three who sat in the shadows of a back booth in the bar, was well known to the relatively small and regional audience for contemporary Western art. Together, the four of them in the bar that day comprised the best of the bunch of artists scattered from Texas to Montana who made a modest living painting pictures of cowboys and Indians and were active participants in the life they portrayed in their art. And in Sedona, on that hot Arizona afternoon, the four of them talked, laughed, drank beer, and founded the organization of artists that would become a full-blown cultural phenomenon.
A few days later, in Charlie Dye’s Sedona studio, the four met again to formalize their ideas for the new organization. They agreed on the name, Cowboy Artists of America, and stated their objectives:
To perpetuate the memory and culture of the Old West as typified by the late Frederic Remington, Charles Russell, and others; to insure authentic representations of the life of the West, as it was and is; to maintain standards of quality in contemporary Western art; to help guide collectors of Western art; to give mutual assistance in protection of artists’ rights; to conduct a trail ride and campout in some locality of special interest once a year; and to hold an annual joint exhibition of the works of active members.
The core group of original members was extended to include Fred Harman of Albuquerque, who was not only a Western painter, but also well known as the creator of the popular Red Ryder syndicated comic strip. Word spread quickly of the new upstart organization, and informal applications for membership began to come in from all over the West and even from places as unlikely as Connecticut. The attraction in the beginning was not related to any tangible prospect of prosperity, but had more to do with common interests and experiences and that old coyote kind of craving for camaraderie. No one could have foreseen the bright future that lay ahead for this hybrid mix of men living out their dreams of cowboys and Indians in both their lives and their art. But the Cowboy Artists seemed blessed from the beginning by the coincidental circumstances of good fortune.
In June 1965, just three days after Dye, Hampton, Beeler, and Phippen had founded the Cowboy Artists of America in the Sedona saloon, the National Cowboy Hall of Fame was formally dedicated at opening ceremonies in Oklahoma City. Joe Beeler had already had in his pocket an invitation to present the new museum’s first one-man exhibition of contemporary Western art in September. The Beeler show was a success and gave Joe the opportunity to promote the idea of a Cowboy Artists exhibition to Dean Krakel, who ran the new museum, and to Jim Boren, who served as its art director. The symbiotic relationship that developed between the Cowboy Artists of America and the National Cowboy Hall of Fame was critical to both fledgling organizations. Together, they would be responsible for a Western art renaissance that would surpass the earlier impact of even Remington and Russell.
The first annual exhibition of the Cowboy Artists of America opened at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame on September 9, 1966. George Phippen had died that spring, but his work was included in the show, as well as that of the other original members: Joe Beeler, Charlie Dye, John Hampton, and Fred Harman. New Cowboy Artists members also exhibiting were: Darol Dickinson, Wayne Hunt, Harvey Johnson, John Kittelson, George Marks, “Shorty” Shope, Gordon Snidow, Grant Speed, and Byron Wolfe.
It was an unusual and extraordinary assortment of artists, with geographical representation from both sides of the Mississippi and pedigrees that ranged from bona fide cowboy credentials to careers back East in commercial illustration. The whole of it proved greater than the individual parts, and the unifying force was a common concern and commitment to art and the West.
Sales at the first Cowboy Hall of Fame show were modest, but the turnout was good, and those who came were enthusiastic about what they saw. Everyone involved deemed the affair a success, and the museum extended an invitation for a second show the following year, which the group eagerly accepted. Everything was happening in a hurry.
It had barely been a year since the genesis in Sedona, and the dust had not yet settled from the Oklahoma City show. But galleries across the Southwest, from Santa Fe to Scottsdale, were rushing to represent the new wave of Western art. Dallas and Denver soon followed suite, and paintings of cowboys and Indians even began to appear in such venerable New York venues as Grand Central Gallery. Applications for Cowboy Artists membership continued to come in, about equally divided between homegrown, boot-wearing Western types and others who had earned their spurs in commercial art and illustration.
By the time the second show opened in Oklahoma City in the spring of 1967, four additional members were exhibiting, and another eight were added the next year. By the fifth annual exhibition in 1970, the membership had leveled off at thirty, and sales from the show were hovering around the $100,000 mark. Business had been good for the rest of the year as well and was not limited to the enhanced buying frenzy of opening nights in Oklahoma City. The demand for the best works of the Cowboy Artists soon exceeded the supply. Galleries combed the countryside out West in search of new names to offer an eager audience that was ready to buy. But it was the Cowboy Artists who had the real clout with collectors, and their annual exhibition became the benchmark for both quality and value. They had become a cultural and commercial force to be reckoned with.
By now, Jim Boren, the Cowboy Hall of Fame’s art director and a fine watercolorist in his own right, had quit his job and joined the Cowboy Artists. An attempt by the museum to gain control of the group failed, and after several successful years the Cowboy Artists broke away from Oklahoma City. The eighth annual exhibition premiered at the Phoenix Art Museum, back in Arizona, where it had all started, just up the road in Sedona. The move proved propitious, providing a long-term arrangement that gave the group an even greater support structure and patron base, as well as a wider audience of potential collectors. Annual show sales blew past the million-dollar mark by the late 1970s and reached 2.8 million by 2000.
The success was due to more than a cultural fad or passing fancy. The Cowboy Artists of America had become a permanent and prominent presence in the context of American art. Today, after almost forty years, many of the original members are gone, and artists who once were protégés have become mentors themselves to a second generation of Cowboy Artists. The group has garnered attention on an international scale, and even the most skeptical critics finally have been able to work past their early pronouncements of provincialism.
The artists and their paintings and sculptures have achieved an aspect of seasoned maturity over the close to forty years of the organization’s existence. Most of the Cowboy Artists remain realists in regard to artistic technique, but the heartfelt hues of romanticism are still evident, just as they were in the works of Remington and Russell. It has always been difficult to be dispassionate about the American West. To even try seems to rob it of its resonance, to diminish the inspirational power of prairies and proud horsemen passing by.
Charles Goodnight, the consummate Texas cowman, once wrote: Most of the time we were solitary adventurers in a great land as fresh and new as a spring morning, and we were free and full of the zest of darers. The zest of the Western darers remains implicit in, and fundamental to, the paintings and sculpture of the Cowboy Artists and in their lives as well. They have created a collective celebration of life in a land like no other. And each spring or early summer, the group still gathers somewhere in the West on a real ranch at roundup time just for fellowship and fun.
In 2002, they gathered on a Montana ranch not far from Judith Basin where Charlie Russell once wrangled horses and dreamed of painting the West, hardly different at all from that cold Mexico morning in 1964, when three gringo cowboys rode out with the roundup down south in Sonora.
By Don Hedgpeth
Honorary CAA Member
Reprinted with permission from The Greenwich Workshop from The Cowboy Artists of America(2002) by Michael Duty.