John DeMott | How the West Was

The Moose Caller, oil, 40 x 30

The Moose Caller, oil, 40 x 30

By Gussie Fauntleroy

The kind of art that especially appeals to western painter John DeMott these days can involve months of research. He probes into countless details of clothing, adornment, tools, activities, and historical events around an envisioned scene. He scouts locations, often in the Rocky Mountain wilderness or the Colorado plains, both of which lie close to his home and studio on a Loveland, CO-area ranch. He hires re-enactors or “extras” and outfits them in period clothing and historic accessories from his extensive personal collection.

If horses are called for, DeMott brings them in from among the 15 in his own stables. He meticulously stages the scene he plans to paint, directing participants to pose in groups as if engaged in activities and interactions their 19th-century forebears might have known. Those posing as American Indians of the Old West are Indians of today, and for each character, the artist suggests facial expressions and postures as if directing a movie. Then he moves around the scene, taking photographs and making sketches. Finally, he uses the photos and drawings to create a single composition, confirming its authenticity through further research into artifacts, historical photos, and books.
All before picking up a single tube of paint.

“That part—traveling to landscapes and going into wilderness country and then staging a scene—is just as enjoyable as painting itself,” the 53-year-old comments in a low-key, thoughtful manner. Yet all the effort that goes into a major painting is for naught if the final artwork isn’t done well. “It doesn’t really matter how you get there, because no one really knows or cares. For the viewer, it just has to be a good painting. For me, the process is a labor of love,” he says.

DeMott’s love of the West’s frontier days has roots in his boyhood, itself a world of horses and cowboy dreams. The son of a racehorse trainer in Southern California, he grew up on ranches where by age 5 he was holding the reins while his father worked on a horse. Roy Rogers was a neighbor, and young DeMott and his sister and three brothers played with the cowboy actor’s kids. The artist remembers walking into Rogers’ house and being “blown away” by his collection of saddles, guns, hunting trophies, and movie memorabilia.

“It’s funny, I was looking at some old photos of myself, and I was this little kid with a six-gun, wearing a flowered cowboy shirt like Roy Rogers or Gene Autry wore. I must have been fascinated by it way back then,” he remarks. Still, even when he began painting seriously, it took some time to come to the realization that what he calls “historical realism” was his true subject of choice. And even then, it was trappers, traders, explorers, Indians, and Civil War soldiers who caught his interest more than the iconic cowpoke on the range.
The Moose Hunter, oil, 18 x 24

The Moose Hunter, oil, 18 x 24

But art was always there. DeMott had a paint set as far back as he can remember, and he never missed a segment of a 1960s-era instructional painting show on the family’s black-and-white TV. Music was an ever-present influence as well. His father played several instruments and, after moving on from racehorse training, owned a couple of music stores and went door-to-door selling his services as an accordion teacher. DeMott’s mother and sister played the piano, the four boys played guitar, and many nights flowed into the wee hours with adults making music and kids sleepily listening on the floor. Today, six acoustic guitars hold a special place in a corner of the artist’s spacious studio, waiting for the not-infrequent chance to round out another side of his creative life.

Creativity and business merged when DeMott was still a teen. In high school he and his girlfriend, Cindy—now his wife of 34 years—would make small copper and brass figurative sculptures in the garage on weekends and sell them on the beach at Marina del Rey. The couple was approached by buyers from large department stores, including the May Company (now Macy’s), and young DeMott started a gift item business that soon involved most of the family. His oldest brother Nick was the business brain, while John, Don, and Marc created the products.

In the mid-1970s, when DeMott was in his 20s, he sold the business to one of his brothers, moved to the Southern California mountains, built a studio, and started painting full time. With little formal art training—aside from workshops with such masters as Richard Schmid and Clyde Aspevig—he developed his craft “the hard way,” he says, “by trial, error, and experience.”

At first his subjects were wildlife and occasional Old West scenes. Gradually the historical element became more prominent, and DeMott began entering western art shows and selling his paintings in places like Scottsdale and Jackson Hole. At one point he bought an RV and packed up Cindy and their three young daughters, and the family spent six months traveling through the Rocky Mountain states. “I went to all the major museums and galleries, took photos, looked at artifacts in museums, saw Indians on reservations,” he recalls. “It was an eye-opener to what I wanted to do, to where my heart really was.”

Featured in November 2007
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