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By Norman Koplas
When most accomplished artists talk about the moment they first knew they had a solid career ahead of them, they reach far back into rich troves of memories. Teal Blake, by contrast, has to cast his thoughts only as far back as last May.
“Joncee and I had gone to the Phippen show, where I had a booth,” says the 30-year-old painter, recounting the journey he and his recent bride made from their home in Weatherford, TX, to the 34th annual Western Art Show and Sale at the Phippen Museum in Prescott, AZ. “If you want to enter a piece to be judged, you just walk it in and drop it off.” Blake entered TEXAS HALF-TOP, a watercolor of a horse being loaded onto a weathered red trailer.
At the Saturday night Denim to Diamonds awards ceremony and gala, the Blakes shared a table with three more-established western artists Teal had only recently befriended: watercolorist J. Mark Kohler and sculptors Jason Scull and Greg Kelsey. “They’re all super-good guys and good ranch hands, and there was a real camaraderie,” says Blake.
“When they got to the watercolor category, they announced that I got first place. I couldn’t believe it. I went up on stage and just kept my head down under my hat,” he continues. “I went to leave, but they told me to stay up there. Turns out I’d won best of show, too. That kind of made my notch in the art world and got my name out there a bit.”
It’s a mark of Blake’s modesty that part of his name is already “out there,” and more than just a bit. He is the only child of well-respected, widely collected artist Buckeye Blake, whose classic western images appear not only on paper and canvas but also on items ranging from clothing to handbags, furniture to pottery.
Blake the younger, however, avoids capitalizing on that connection. “I don’t want people to necessarily know about it at first,” he says. “I want them to see my work and think, ‘He’s a good artist,’ and only then maybe realize, ‘Oh, he’s Buckeye Blake’s son!’
“And Dad has been real good about it, too. He’s careful not to go too far when I call him to come look and help,” says Blake, whose father’s studio is just 5 miles away. “Mostly, I like to just sit down and solve problems myself.”
That sort of inner drive and dedication has been Blake’s approach from the start. His earliest artistic memories are of sitting on the floor of his father’s studio on the ranch where they lived in remote Augusta, MT, north of Helena. “He’d hand me scraps of matte board to draw on,” says Blake. “That’s where I was when I wasn’t out messing around with the horses or dogs or out hiking, looking for critters.”
Young Teal also hung around when Buckeye’s artist friends came calling. Early on, he became familiar with the likes of Gary Carter, William Matthews, Vel Miller, and Dave Powell. He also enjoyed accompanying his mom and dad on visits to the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, MT. “I remember when I was about 5 years old, looking at exhibits of Russell’s letters, which he illustrated with watercolors. His wolves and grizzlies really caught my eye. The feeling he could get with a few lines is just incredible,” Blake says.
Western subjects portrayed realistically held the greatest appeal for young Teal, not least because real-life horses were quickly becoming his primary passion. Indeed, horses were part of his heritage. His great-grandfather, Samuel Coke Blake, was one of the founding breeders of the American Quarter Horse. When Teal was 7 or 8, his mom started raising and training the breed for cutting and roping. “The horse habit got pretty thick around our place,” he says.
Then, at the start of his junior year in high school, his family moved to Sun Valley, ID, so Teal could get a broader education than he would in rural Montana and also so Buckeye could be in closer touch with his audience. “That’s when I started riding bulls,” says Blake.
His school had a rodeo team, and he signed up for a bull-riding clinic. “I didn’t fall off of anything,” he says. “And then I started winning.” Success in the ring translated into endless anxiety for his parents. “My dad would pace the benches, and in 10 years my mom never could watch one single ride.” He even went pro for a couple of years.
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Along the way, Blake also spent some time in college, first at Montana State University in Bozeman and later at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, CA. “To tell you the truth,” he says, “I flunked all my art classes because I was gone rodeoing so much. Plus, the assignments made me feel like they’d given me a coloring book and told me to color inside the lines.” That didn’t stop him, however, from sketching and painting when not on the road. “I asked my dad if I could take one of his spare easels. I set it up in my apartment, and I’d catch myself there once or twice a week doing little rodeo and riding pieces.”
Blake’s rambling rodeo life changed in the summer of 2001. He was invited to participate in an amateur bull-riding event in Swan Valley, near Idaho Falls. “I got on this big, strong bull I’d seen before, and I rode him,” he says. “Then, when I got off, he came back at me and ripped up my shoulder and broke three or four ribs.”
It took Blake several months to heal, during which time he fly-fished from dawn to dark, pondering his future. “I knew too many guys who got crippled from rodeo. I didn’t want to take the chance of getting hurt so bad that I couldn’t ride horses or sketch again.”
An offer from his mom clinched his decision to stop. “She had a great little cutting horse I’d been in love with forever,” he says. “And she said, ‘If you don’t get on a bull again, I’ll give you this horse.’ Winter was coming on. I took the horse and came down to Texas.”
Blake bought 15 acres in Weatherford, northwest of Fort Worth. He painted a mural in exchange for four Texas longhorn cows and started raising cattle. Meanwhile, he began competing professionally in team roping.
But, with increasing frequency, Blake felt himself drawn to art. He quit entering roping competitions, set up his easel in a corner of the living room, ordered some watercolor paper, “and just ran with it,” he says. “I’d had my time to play. Now was the time to paint.”
By his reckoning, he now paints about three weeks of every month. “And the other week or so, I’ll go mend fences or check the cattle,” he says. He also finds inspiration helping out on ranches during spring brandings or fall gathers, especially at the 165,000-acre Pitchfork Ranch in West Texas. “Besides cowboying, I take a lot of pictures. When I get back home, I’ll look at them and do a nice little sketch in a 2B pencil, to where I feel I have everything correct.” Finally, Blake lays in the watercolors, taking three to four hours—sometimes as long as five “to get the shadows just right”—until a painting is done.
The results of this process are works he describes as “traditionalist” and “faithfully realistic” to western subjects that, although very much of today, capture an enduring spirit tracing its roots back to the 19th century and to early 20th-century cowboy artists like Charlie Russell. Blake’s favorite subjects include working ranch hands and bucking horses. “If I enter a gallery and there’s a bucking horse painting, I’ll go straight to it,” he says. “I’ve been drawn to them since I was little. To me, they’re the spirit of the West.”
Capturing the essence of the West is Blake’s goal. With that in mind, he’ll continue to visit the Pitchfork Ranch, next time with his fellow cowboy artists. “I spoke with the new foreman there and arranged to go for the spring branding and stay in the bunkhouse along with Mark Kohler and Jason Scull. We’ll go in late March or early April, right after the C.M. Russell show.”
No doubt, even more prize-winning works of art will result. But, with his typical modesty, Blake sees it all as mere steps in a long journey. “I’m happy with how I’ve been progressing daily,” he says. “If I just keep doing what I feel is honest, and stick to my subject matter, I think I’ll be okay.”
Legacy Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY; Cowhorse Gallery, Snyder, TX; www.theblakestudios.com.
Trappings of Texas, Museum of the Big Bend, Alpine, TX, February 28-April 26.
Round-up Art Sale & Exhibit, Museum of Western Art, Kerrville, TX, April 24-May 30.
Western Heritage Classic, Abilene, TX, May 7-9.
Phippen Museum Western Art Show and Sale, Prescott, AZ, May 23-25.
America’s Horse in Art, American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame & Museum, Amarillo, TX, August 14-November 14.
Featured in February 2009