Cowboys, oil, 30 x 24.
By Norman Kolpas
Spring roundup is drawing to a close in Idaho’s Bear Valley. For days now, hardworking cowboys have toiled from pre-dawn until after dusk, bringing in the big herds from the foothills and canyons of the Wasatch Range near Bear Lake. Guiding their massive steeds with subtle tweaks of the reins and nudges of boots in stirrups, they corral the cattle. The men work expertly in the calf pens in teams of two, frantic hooves kicking up clouds of dust as one by one the young animals are heeled cut from the herd, their back legs roped so they can be safely taken off for branding and vaccination.
One cowboy in particular stands slightly apart from this toiling band. Not that he isn’t ably pitching in or is any less a true westerner than the others, from his well-worn hat, chaps, and boots to the effortless way he rides and works the livestock. The only difference is that, at any given moment, this buckaroo is likely to pull out his Canon ES camera, fitted with a 28/300mm zoom lens, and fire off shot after shot of the action that swirls all around him.
Back across the border in Utah’s scenic Cache Valley, at his home in the small town of Hyde Park, Jason Rich will review those photos along with thousands of others he has already taken. From some fleeting moment, an image the look in a horse’s eye or the turn of a cowboy’s head, for example—will coalesce into an idea for one of the oil paintings that have won Rich, at the age of 31, a widespread reputation as a western artist of outstanding talent.
The Signal, oil, 48 x 36.
Not that every day he spends in the saddle gives rise to a work of art. “Sometimes,” he admits, “I forget that I have my camera, I get so caught up in working the cattle and riding my horse.”
This is how life has always been for Jason Rich: a constant ebb and flow between his dual loves of horses and art. Coax him even a little bit about childhood memories, for example, and he’ll shyly admit that his earliest aspiration was to be … no, not a cowboy, but a horse. “My first word was ‘horse,’” he says. “Everything was a horse. We’d be in the woods and I’d see a squirrel run up a tree, and I’d say, ‘Horse!’” Each new pair of pants or overalls his parents bought him soon bore evidence of that equine calling. “I was always on my hands and knees, pretending to be a horse, and it took me about three days to wear holes in the knees.”
Growing up on a 15-acre horse farm in the southeastern Idaho town of Preston only added further fuel to that obsession. When Jason, second oldest among the five Rich children, was just a toddler, squirming in church on a Sunday morning, his dad, sitting beside him on the pew, would sketch little pictures of horses to divert the child. As soon as Jason could hold a pencil himself, he started sketching, too, every moment he could. “My mom has stacks and stacks of my drawings,” says Rich. “And there was nothing I ever drew that didn’t have a horse in it.”
Dust Mask, oil, 14 x 11.
The family always assumed he’d grow up to be an artist. “I never really considered doing anything else,” Rich says. At Preston High, art teacher Corey Johnson encouraged his budding talent. But Rich still spent more time riding than drawing. “As long as it was warm enough,” he recalls, “I spent every day on horseback. I would hop on bareback and ride over the roughest terrain at a nice gallop. It felt exciting and free.”
Rich finally traded in his roughrider ways for studies in the illustration department at Utah State University. Under the tutelage of then-chairman Glen Edwards, himself an outstanding painter of western subjects, he gained discipline and skill through countless hours of life drawing, both in the classroom and back in his dorm room. One of the most valuable lessons Rich learned was the importance of careful composition. “Edwards made us aware of our ability to direct the viewer’s eye throughout a painting,” he says. “At the same time, he never told anybody what to paint or how to paint. He felt it was important to find the subject or style that was important to you.”
No question what subject matter Rich found important. But before he attacked it, he first tried teaching for a year, returning to Preston High to fill in for the ailing Corey Johnson. He did well at it but knew the classroom wasn’t his true calling. “You’re either going to be a really good teacher who does art in his spare time when he can, or a bad teacher who spends lots of time with his art,” he says. He returned to Utah State for a master’s in illustration and started “painting fast and furious.” By the time he earned that advanced degree in 1998, he had already found gallery representation and was seeing sales of his canvases rising. A year before that, one of his works won the Grand Prize in the prestigious national Arts for the Parks show in Jackson, WY—just one award on a long list that also includes the Best New Auction Artist Award at the C.M. Russell Auction in 1998 and the Founders’ Favorite Award at Arts for the Parks in 1999.
Cutting Out Yearlings, oil, 24 x 30.
All these achievements would not be possible, Rich quickly points out, without the help of his wife Kari, his sweetheart since Utah State, with whom he’ll celebrate their ninth anniversary this August. A graphic designer by training, she now runs the business side of her husband’s career and helps raise their family, which consists of 6-year-old Madison, 3-year-old Ivy, and 1-year-old Scott. “Kari is involved in everything that I do,” says Rich warmly, “and she frees me up to be able to paint.”
That means heading down to his basement studio every morning by 9 o’clock, Monday to Friday, and painting until just before dinner. “I get more done by keeping office hours,” says Rich. He’ll turn to his photographs, laying out the prints on a table and looking for the horse or cowboy, gesture or lighting that catches his eye. Then he’ll look for other elements that complement them, whether cows, corral fences, skies, or landscapes. A small pencil sketch pulls the composition together. Next, he uses thinned-out burnt sienna to transfer the drawing to a canvas. Then the weeklong layer-by-layer process of building and refining the painting’s masses, color values, and details begins.
The result of that meticulous, dedicated process shows in canvases aglow with color, light, and life. In his recent Workin’ the Spring Calves, for example, father and son cowboys heel calves at a ranch near Flood Creek, ID, as rain clouds hug the Wasatch peaks. “I loved the gesture of the horse,” says Rich of the chestnut steed at the center of the 40-by-66-inch painting. “He’d done this many, many times, and knew what it was all about.” The accumulation of expert details, combined with a keen eye and sure brushstrokes, makes it almost possible to smell the dust, hear the lowing of the cattle, and feel the thrumming of their hooves. “I wanted to put you right there in the middle of the action,” Rich observes.
But the artist’s strengths are not limited to action scenes alone. Rich captures in equally compelling fashion the quieter moments of western life. In Moving On, for example, he depicts the silent connection between a cowboy—in fact, his uncle Bill—and his horse as they cross a woodland creek. Cowboys, featuring Rich’s cousin Howard and Howard’s nephew Lucas, captures a deep bond born of hard work and shared values.
The sure ring of truth found in such paintings comes only from a lifetime of observing and drawing the West—its landscapes, its people, and, yes, its horses. Which explains why Jason Rich has begun only tentatively to branch into other subject matter in such paintings as The Signal, a striking image of a young Indian brave astride a Paint mount. “I enjoy doing Native American paintings,” he says, “but they make me a little more nervous because I feel the need to be historically accurate.” Before exploring such subject matter further, he says, “I need to spend some time doing research on my own, to paint things as the Indians would have done it.”
Considering the level of commitment he has already shown in depicting cowboy scenes, it is only a matter of time before Jason Rich achieves acclaim for an even broader array of western subjects.
Photos courtesy the artist and Meyer Gallery, Park City, UT, and Jackson, WY; Texas Art Gallery, Dallas, TX; and Trailside Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ.
Featured in June 2001