Thanks to the movies and TV, even the most citified of urban dwellers has a working knowledge of America’s icon, the cowboy: this legendary person wears a unique hat, sits a horse with cool assurance, swings a lasso, drinks appalling coffee, and speaks with a drawl.
But does this person still exist? Are there cowboys in the 21st century?
Yes, there are. According to Wide Open Country, an online platform showcasing country music and the rural lifestyle, more than one million beef producers in the U.S. are responsible for more than 94 million head of beef cattle. From major establishments to small ranches, cowboys are an essential part of cattle’s lives.
“My grandparents were salt-of-the-earth ranchers who lived the simple life,” western art painter Chris Owen of Billings, who was born and raised in Montana’s modern west, told writer Mark Mussari in Southwest Art Magazine’s article, Chris Owen: Setting a Mood.
As a young boy spending summers on his grandparents’ small ranch in the Judith Basin, Owen embraced rural life, developing an appreciation for the importance of the agricultural community. His grandfather’s stories of meeting C.M. Russell — the late 19th, early 20th century cowboy, writer, environmentalist and artist — inspired dreams in a young boy that later, after art studies at Montana State University in Billings, and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA, grew into a professional career as a painter, capturing the real, gritty, literally earthy life of the contemporary cowboy.
“After my formal art education, I decided to work with the western cowboy and horse theme,” Owen explains. “I spent the first few years on several operating ranches in the region, and made acquaintance with working cowboy owners and employed cowboys.
“The experiences with them taught me a great deal.”
Not only from humans did Owen learn his subject, and learn it well. The owner of three horses — Jake, Buck, and Badger — Owen clues in on the animals’ non-verbal language with each other and their human companions, translating that language to canvas in works that, according to Mussari’s article, “are surprisingly dark and make rich of contrasts between light and dark.”
“There is a difficulty of the subject matter, painting human and horse figures with gesture, light, shapes, color and anatomical accuracy,” Owen says.
“Much of the western art has been more about illustration than the use of a more subjective approach of nonrepresentational art.
“I wanted to establish my own unique style which moves more toward these fine art concepts.”
By major indications, Owen has successfully created his signature style, garnering both awards and exhibitions at major western art events such as the Cheyenne Frontier Days Western Art Show, Cheyenne, WY; the National Coors Western Arts Exhibit, Denver, CO; and the C.M. Russell Western Art Auction, Great Falls, MT. In addition to Southwest Art Magazine, Owen has been featured in Heartland USA, Wildlife Art, and Western Horseman magazines.
In 2001, Owen contracted with Ashton Company, and later Somerset Art, to create prints of his work, but in 2011 he began his own publishing company, which provides high quality giclee art prints through select galleries.
With a strong focus on earth tones — browns, umbers, burnt orange, and gold — Owen’s work celebrates the symbiotic relationship between cowboys and their horses. This is the real world of today, not a pretend or romanticized view of the past, with movement, action, and force, even when the subjects are standing still.
“I soon learned taking pictures from a horse on the gallop was not going to work,” Owen says of capturing the action of real life. “So, the idea of riding a horse at a loop, keeping up with a cowboy on the move at the same time taking pictures at the right angle in the right light was not a viable option.
“There is a challenge of painting action pieces.”
It is a challenge he has solved, fusing representational art with abstract overtones, translating a world that most of us know only as legend into images that the viewer can experience today, in real time.
“The cowboy endures as the foremost American icon,” Owen says. “His ongoing endurance as the premier American cultural hero stands as testament to the spirit and values that have made the West great.”
Contact the gallery, located at 219 East Main Street, Dayton, WA, by phone at 509.382.2124 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Monday through Saturday, and by appointment. Visit the Wenaha Gallery website online at www.wenaha.com.
Wenaha Gallery is your destination location for Greenwich Workshop Fine Art Prints, professional customized framing, and original fine art paintings and sculpture by notable Pacific Northwest artists. Books, gifts, note cards, jigsaw puzzles, and more are also available. Visit at 219 East Main, Dayton, WA.
This article was written by Carolyn Henderson.