By Dawn Blanchard
Bill Mittag will tell you he didn’t become an artist until he was 32 years old. But as his story unfolds, you get the feeling that there has always been a mystic force at work that led him to his career as a western painter.
Born in West Texas and raised in southeastern New Mexico, Mittag was given the freedom to roam the prairie on his little paint mare, driven by his imagination. “I shot robbers, chased Indians, and won the Cheyenne steer-ropin’ competitions,” he recalls with a soft laugh. His first real exposure to art was a feed store calendar that came to his family’s house each year, filled with reproductions of artwork by Charles M. Russell and Frederic Remington. On days he wasn’t out wandering on the prairie, he would sometimes make pencil sketches of the cowboys and horses on the calendars, not realizing those sketches were the first step on a path to an art career.
Years later, with a bachelor of science degree from New Mexico State University and graduate studies at UCLA behind him, he worked as a health-care administrator in Texas. He and his wife, Jeannie, would travel the rodeo circuit on the weekends, living the cowboy dream. Mittag made a name for himself in team-roping competitions, and between events he would sketch the things around him. His wife noticed that these doodles were always snapped up by the first person to see them.
Disappointment struck when he was told that, because of health reasons, he could no longer compete on the rodeo circuit. Left with too much spare time and little to fill it, he started turning his rodeo memories into pencil sketches, which gave his wife an idea. “Come Christmas, I said to heck with these piddly sketches,” says Jeannie. “I went out and bought him a set of oil paints with brushes.”
At Mittag’s first starving-artist show he earned $80 for three of the five paintings he entered. Since then, the primarily self-taught artist has painted with the best and taken workshops over the years to improve his technique. One year, he went to Kansas to see his sister and met John D. Free, a wellknown western sculptor and one of the original members of the National Academy of Western Art (now called the Prix de West). Later, his sister told him the sculptor had called and wanted to buy one of his paintings. Mittag decided that if Free felt his work was good enough to own, then maybe his talent was good enough to be taken seriously.
Today, Mittag is represented by 10 galleries across the country, has been inducted into the Mountain Oyster Club of Tucson, AZ, and has exhibited in such places as the C.M. Russell Museum in Montana, the Gilcrease Museum in Oklahoma, and the Albuquerque Museum in New Mexico.
Standing in his Arizona studio, Mittag points to some of the work leaning against the wall and starts listing their destinations. Some of the paintings are headed for the annual Mountain Oyster Club show, while others will be sent to galleries in Texas and Arizona. Yet another one is a commissioned piece. Mittag is relaxed, matter-of-fact, and rather modest in the face of his success as an artist. In fact, when asked what advice he would give to aspiring artists, Mittag says, “I don’t care how good you are, there’s always somebody better. Don’t get hung up in the rat-race of whether you’ve got it made or not.”
On canvas, Mittag combines loose, painterly landscapes with highly controlled, intricate renderings of the daily camp life of the Plains Indians. “I paint the American West before it was changed forever by the great western migration,” he says.
Working with oils on linen, he starts with a brown madder foundation. Before he begins painting, he decides which season and time of day he wants to depict. He paints the sky first, allowing it to set the mood around the camp. Then, as the painting begins to take shape, the story of the scene he’s rendering becomes clear in his mind. He points to a finished painting, titled EDGE OF TOMORROW. In it, two women stand together, engaged in conversation. Behind them, three hunters are returning to the camp. “To me, [the painting] asks the question ‘what will tomorrow bring?’” he says. The moment he captures with his brush takes the viewer to a historical instant in time and also communicates the impact of the western landscape on the Native Americans who followed the buffalo. His commitment to accurate historical and geographical information is evidenced by the believability of each painting.
“If you take the number of years it took to make the mountains and this landscape, these people, and you and me, are just here for a second in that time,” Mittag says. “Some of these paintings really just show the passage of man in a landscape.” He hesitates for a moment, choosing his next words carefully. “That’s why I rarely do large teepees with little bitty trees way in the background. It’s primarily just a mystic situation where you can sometimes feel like you can just step in there and be a part of it.”
At the mention of the word mystic, Mittag pauses, walks to a bookcase, and pulls out a thick book titled Mystic Warriors of the Plains by Thomas E. Mails. “This is something that I really rely on,” he says. The wellworn volume is filled with detailed illustrations showing the day-today life of the Plains Indians and the trappings of their world. This, and other reference books, aid the artist in depicting an accurate image of how life must have been for Native American tribes in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
He gets up from his easel and walks with a slight limp, a reminder of his team-roping days, he says. He presents his hands, which are laced with rodeo scars. “My life is good,” he says. “I’m grateful for everything I have.” He points to a wall filled with photos and newspaper articles about his days on the rodeo circuit and different art shows he’s participated in. He tells a tale of five painters who talked about forming a group in the early 1980s and calling themselves “The Motel 6 Western Art Association.” He smiles as he remembers his early days as an artist.
Mittag is still a cowboy at heart, much like the young boy who used to ride his little paint mare across the prairie, dreaming of roping cattle and shooting outlaws. Today, he lives his western dreams by creating detailed paintings of camp life, each canvas telling a story of the Native Americans who led peaceful lives in the timeless landscapes of the mystic West.
MITTAG IS REPRESENTED BY TAOS GALLERY, SCOTTSDALE, AZ; WHISTLE PIKGALLERY, FREDERICKSBURG, TX; MONGERSON GALLERY, CHICAGO, IL; GALLERY SHOAL CREEK, AUSTIN, TX; AND ASPEN GROVE GALLERY, ASPEN, CO.
Featured in January 2003