Don Crowley

The Lotus Bowl, oil, 16 x 20. painting southwest art.
The Lotus Bowl, oil, 16 x 20.

By Myrna Zanetell

Just as an artist clarifies a painting with each brush stroke, so does he clarify his life’s direction with each new artwork. For Don Crowley, the clarification process has been on-going for four decades, during which time he has moved from commercial artist to fine-art painter, creating an oeuvre that includes still lifes, portraiture and a wide range of landscapes.

Adding to the clarification process is Crowley’s induction into the Cowboy Artists of America in 1994. His gold medal for drawing at the 1995 CAA show in Phoenix, AZ, proved he could compete and his four medals in 1996 prove he is one of the best. “After 43 years in the business, I am finally comfortable with the title of artist,” Crowley confides. Nevertheless, he continues to pay close attention to the competition. “I’ve spent my life admiring the work of other artists and always feel a bit inferior. I owe my success to the power of negative thinking.” Breaking into one of his irrepressible smiles, he adds, “Fear is a great motivator. I used to worry about creating a certain look, but I have finally accepted myself for who I am.”

Raindrops, oil, 33 x 42. painting southwest art.
Raindrops, oil, 33 x 42.

A fan of the polished paintings of Dutch painter Jan Vermeer, Crowley has pursued hyperrealism in his own paintings, eliciting viewer comments such as, “The paintings look just like photographs.” While he acknowledges such comments as compliments, Crowley also views them as constructive motivation for developing a more painterly style. “I’ve finally realized that I don’t have to take a painting to the ultimate finish. Not every detail is necessary or even desirable.”

Experimenting with new techniques is what keeps Crowley interested and learning, he says. “Ten or 20 lifetimes would hardly be enough to absorb the variety of approaches that are out there. I’m always surprised by younger artists who seem to have no interest in what their contemporaries are doing. To this day I adhere to W.C. Fields’ admonition that ‘anything worth having is worth stealing.’” Crowley doesn’t mean literally stealing the techniques of heroes such as Nicolai Fechin, Norman Rockwell and N.C. Wyeth or old masters Vermeer and Rembrandt van Rijn. “I observe the manner in which they solved problems,” says Crowley. “I still borrow a good solution whenever I can.”

Weaning Time, oil, 24 x 30. painting southwest art.
Weaning Time, oil, 24 x 30.

A tour of Don and wife BJ’s Tucson, AZ, home reveals a m´elange of influences that have shaped the Crowley look. Several works by James Bama adorn the walls—a tribute to a close friend whom Crowley credits with giving him the courage to pursue western American subject matter. Other carefully chosen pieces by Michael Coleman, Kenneth Riley and Howard Terpning underscore the high esteem with which Crowley regards his fellow artists.

Much of the home’s warmth and personal charm can also be attributed to the artwork created by its owners. Crowley’s intricate abstract wood sculptures and delicate still lifes done during his New York years are found throughout the house, along with decorative art by BJ, who works in a style known as chinoiserie. This popular French art form, which imitates Oriental styles and techniques, is seen in BJ’s handpainted fireplace screens and intricately decorated eggshell boxes. These intimate pieces turn a house into a home that, after 20 years, is an integral part of Crowley’s life, as well as his art. Set on a one-acre tract in the mountainous area of northwest Tucson, the remote site also serves as a backdrop for his paintings.

Fry Bread, pencil, 171⁄2 x 211⁄2. painting southwest art.
Fry Bread, pencil, 171⁄2 x 211⁄2.

“I’ve posed models around a rock grouping out back for years,” he says. “It makes a perfect stage, especially because each angle offers a totally different composition. The distant Catalina mountains are also very picturesque, so I have everything I need right outside my back door.”

Crowley paints familiar subjects as well as settings. He has used five children in the Martineau family, members of the Paiute tribe in Kaibab, AZ, as models during the past two decades. “Rachel, who was 2 years old when I began painting her, is now in her 20s and works as a blackjack dealer in Wisconsin … times do change.”

Crowley believes that his paintings have evolved with the maturation of his models. Rather than his earlier portraits of innocence, today he depicts young women engaged in beadwork, hide-tanning, quilting and other sewing activities, not to mention performing dances at the annual powwows.

“I often show my subjects gathering and preparing food such as acorns, corn or jujube beans for the family or tending the sheep and horses,” says Crowley. He also depicts the more unusual activity of mining peridot, a gem found in commercial quantities only on the San Carlos Apache reservation and in South Africa. “Mining is a picturesque operation—tribal members, mostly women, sit in shallow holes breaking up rocks in search of the elusive gem.”

Crowley recalls trying to paint an older woman busily sifting rock. “I offered her a modest fee to take her picture, but she didn’t want to be bothered. As I started to leave, however, she changed her mind and got up. Simultaneously someone set off a dynamite charge and a rock the size of a football shot over the hill and landed in the hole where she had been sitting. When it dawned on her that my offer had saved her life, she became a very cooperative sitter.”

Although Crowley has been painting similar subjects for years, he still relies on firsthand experience to stage the events he records. “I simply don’t have the talent for visualizing a scene and recreating it on canvas. I use on-site drawings and photographs to finish the painting in my studio, where I can control the light and weather.”

Crowley’s studio is best described as “organized clutter.” Lining the far edge of the room are file cabinets containing drawer after drawer of photographs taken during research trips. Stacks of art books, arranged in an order known only to Crowley, fill a large table near the door. Baskets, saddles, drums and other traditional Native American props occupy every nook and cranny, and a beaded ceremonial dress hangs in a glass-enclosed cabinet, ready to be painted.

Crowley usually produces a 9-by-12-inch oil sketch of his subject before beginning the full-size painting. “I can visualize the finished product and resolve any problems before going on to the larger canvas,” he explains. He follows the oil sketch with a detailed drawing on the canvas, overpainted with a value study. Then he begins the laborious process of laying in color in the various sections of the painting. For Weaning Time he began with the cattle, moved to the left fence and background, then the right fence. The paint is allowed to dry in between, so he often works on more than one painting at a time.

As a member of the Cowboy Artists of America, Crowley has returned to the subject of the contemporary cowboy working on Arsenic Tubs ranch, which is situated in the heart of the San Carlos reservation and operated by the Apache people in conjunction with the University of Arizona. Tribal management and university personnel have allowed him to observe and record ranch activities. “I ex-pect the volumes of material I’ve gathered will find their way into my paintings,” he says.

Crowley has also begun painting men as well as women. A favorite model is Paul Fleury, a Canadian Cree. “Paul is a remarkable man,” says Crowley. “He is one of Canada’s most decorated soldiers. Before he left for World War II, the tribal medicine man told him not to be afraid because he had a double that would always walk 6 feet ahead of him; in battle the enemy would see only this double.”

Fleury relates that on several occasions his “double” saved his life—one memorable example took place in an Italian village where sniper fire struck the ground exactly 6 feet in front of him. “It has been an honor to paint Paul,” says Crowley “for I consider him to be one of the world’s truly great people.”

Crowley’s readiness to praise others is one of his most endearing qualities. When he talks of his models and his plans for future paintings, he radiates contentment that speaks louder than the words of a man who is at home, both with his environment and with his art.

Photos courtesy the artist and Husberg Fine Arts, Scottsdale, AZ; Settlers West Galleries, Tucson, AZ; Gateway Gallery, Albuquerque, NM; Big Horn Galleries, Cody, WY; and Legacy Galleries, Jackson, WY.

Featured in March 1997