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'Creative Cowboys'

Two cowboy art exhibitions at Tacoma Art Museum

“Kay Gee Doc,” tempera on board by William Cumming, gift of J.P. Morgan Chase. Photo courtesy Tacoma Art Museum

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I have never been a huge fan of cowboy art, so I was surprised to find I actually enjoyed "Creative Cowboys" and its companion show, "Saddles, Spurs and Quirts" as much as I did.

"Creative Cowboys" celebrates cowboy culture in the Pacific Northwest from art about cowboy festivals and rodeos from Pendleton, Oregon and Spokane, Washington to paintings by local favorite cowboy artists such as Fred Oldfield, founder of the Fred Oldfield Western Heritage and Art Center in Puyallup. The companion show, "Saddles, Spurs and Quirts: the Art of Leatherworking," is an exhibition of intricate leatherwork cowboy boots, saddles, spurs and related crafts.

As with Western art in other areas - notably the cattle country of Wyoming and Montana, and the "wild west" of Texas, the Southwest and the plains states - cowboy art of our region tends to romanticize and mythologize cowboys.

Among the more famous artists represented in the show is John Clymer, an illustrator whose Saturday Evening Post covers were eclipsed in popularity only by those by Norman Rockwell. Born and raised in Ellensburg, he went to the east coast to study art, but his favorite subjects were cowboy families, most notably teenage boys who grew up on horseback in his native Northwest. Clymer painted as many as 80 Post covers. He depicted a cowboy version of Rockwell's "All-American life" with the same kind of quirky humor his more celebrated contemporary was famous for. Take, for example, "Boy on Horse," a Post cover illustration from 1949 depicting a boy standing up in his saddle to peer into a hole in a tall tree trunk. What is she looking for? A bee hive? Stealing some honey, perhaps? Or maybe retrieving a hidden treasure previously secreted away in the stump.

Clymer's illustrations and others in the show are displayed with the original paintings alongside the magazine covers. Viewers may find comparing the paintings with the print versions interesting.

William Cumming presents a more contemporary view of cowboy life with his pop art depictions of rodeos. Painted in colorful and flat planes, he creates exciting images of the extreme action of bull riding and steer roping. His "Kay Gee Doc" pictures a rodeo cowboy roping a steer. Behind the action can be seen letters from advertisements on the wall. Everything is out of focus, blurred by dust with wonderfully toned-down yet bright colors and brushwork that reminds me of Susan Rothenburg, who made her mark with expressive paintings of horses - particularly the horse's back legs that are obscured by a cloud of dust.   

Oldfield's "Cow Camp at McCormick Meadows" is an idyllic scene of cowboys camping on the banks of a tiny stream in a field of golden yellow, a cowboy cooking on a campfire in front of a white tent while their horses peacefully graze. This is an excellent little painting that, nevertheless, creates a falsely serene picture of life on the cow trails.

The saddles, spurs and quirts end the show with a display in a glass case at the back door of the gallery. The intricacy of the designs showcase the loving care of the craftspeople who made these beautiful objects made for utilitarian work.

"CREATIVE COWBOYS" and "SADDLES, SPURS, AND QUIRTS," Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., through May 15, $12-$14, Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, www.tacomaartmuseum.org

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