John W. Hampton | Blazing New Trails

The Sound of Music [1996], oil, 36 x 24.,painting, southwest art.
The Sound of Music [1996], oil, 36 x 24.

By Lynn Pyne

At 80, a time in life when many men might kick off their boots and relax, cowboy artist John Hampton is blazing new trails. He and his wife Cheraux have left the crowded city life of Scottsdale and are building a spacious log cabin on 10 acres of wide-open grassland in southeastern Arizona. Their property borders a 78,000-acre protected riparian area populated by deer, mountain lions, bears, jackrabbits, coyotes, and other wildlife.

This summer the Hamptons plan to be moving in and unpacking boxes—including boxes of spurs, old saddles, Indian rugs, wild-game trophies, and antique rifles that will fill Hampton’s new art studio. They’ve already made friends with their cattle-ranching neighbors and have settled happily into a rural lifestyle, where people relax after a hard day’s work by telling stories and playing the guitar.

John W. Hampton (nicknamed “Johnny” or “J.W.”) is a founding member of the Cowboy Artists of America. Back in 1958, when he settled in Scottsdale, it was known as “the West’s most western town,” but through the years the city grew dramatically. Cheraux says that when they got married four years ago, she asked her husband about his hopes and dreams. His reply: “I want to see further than across the street.”

Hampton wanted more room. He wanted to see the sun setting over mountains in the distance. He wanted to live where he could put up corrals and own some horses. “I was afraid of getting trapped in Scottsdale traffic before I could get out of town,” he jokes. Far from feeling apprehensive about the dramatic move, Hampton says, “I just hate it that I’ve waited so long to do this. Time went by so quick. I’m like the guy who came into town for a drink and never got out.”

Turning_the_Leader [1981], Bronze,19 1/2, 31 x 17., sculpture, southwest art.
Turning_the_Leader [1981], Bronze,19 1/2, 31 x 17.

The Hamptons have astonished their many Scottsdale friends, who ask, Do you still like it out there? “We love it,” Hampton says. “Cheraux has never ridden a horse, but she’s going to.” He is eager to camp out in a bedroll under the stars. He wants to learn from his cowboy friends how to throw a hatchet into a stump and howl at the moon. He is brimming with energy and fresh ideas to pour into his western art.

American cowboy icon John Wayne once said, “Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes to us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.” Without a backward glance, Hampton is moving on toward tomorrow. He says, “As long as you’ve got your health and if you have a burning desire, you can do it. But you’ve got to do it—you can’t just talk about it. You think you’re going to live forever, and then one day, you’re 80, and if you’re going to do it, you’d better start.”

The Pull of the Latigo [1998], oil, 20 x 30., painting, southwest art.
The Pull of the Latigo [1998], oil, 20 x 30.

During construction of their home, the Hamptons have lived in rented rooms on a nearby ranch. In normal circumstances, the artist works in diverse media—oil, watercolor, charcoal, pen and ink, and bronze—but lately his tight living quarters have forced him to work mostly in watercolor and in pen and ink, which don’t require as much room. The artist is looking forward to settling into his new studio, which will be spacious enough to accommodate just about anything, including heroic-sized sculpture.

Hampton has won many gold medals in Cowboy Artists of America shows for

his action-filled bronzes, in which the hooves of cattle and horses fly through the air so swiftly that they barely touch the ground. One of his best-known works is a bronze called Turning the Leaders, which stands at the Cowboy Artists of America Museum in Kerrville, TX, and depicts a cowboy overtaking a stampeding herd of long horn cattle. Another bronze, Will Rogers Ropin’ a Calf, made headlines when it was acquired by the Will Rogers Memorial and Birthplace in Oklahoma.

Hampton’s paintings and drawings illustrate equally colorful cowboy scenes dating from the Civil War through about 1900, such as the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, robbers going after Wells Fargo gold, buffalo hunters splitting a herd, cattle rustlers chasing a stampede, and cowboys roping steers. From his prolific reading and his own in-the-saddle experience, Hampton visualizes scenes as they might have happened. He is careful not to stray from western authenticity into an overblown Hollywood-style West. “My stuff could be true,” he says. The artist also delves into the everyday side of the West, depicting scenes such as a cowboy saddling a horse for the first time or playing the fiddle on horseback while guarding a herd of cattle at night.

Vaquero [1984], bronze, 231⁄2 x 281⁄2 x 101⁄2, sculpture, southwest art.
Vaquero [1984], bronze, 231⁄2 x 281⁄2 x 101⁄2

Some of the historic ranch scenes could be taking place on ranches today. In fact, Hampton is already gleaning ideas for paintings and sculpture from his new surroundings in cattle country. A cow- boy friend recently told him about roping a charging javelina, and another described being chased by a bull through a gate. “They’ve got stories to tell like you can’t believe,” Hampton says with a chuckle. “I’d like to illustrate some of them.”

Hampton’s art is in the collections of museums, galleries, and individuals from Montana to Paris, including the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, OK, the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, MT, and the private collection of singer Johnny Cash. He has been featured on television; in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the London Times; and in Arizona Highways and Fortune magazines.

That’s pretty good for a guy born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. “The stork dropped me down the wrong chimney,” Hampton is fond of saying. Actually, many great western artists, including Frederic Remington, came from the East Coast. Hampton was obsessed with the Old West from childhood: While other boys played stickball, he used his mother’s clothesline to practice roping fire hydrants and girls. At age 16 he won a rodeo sketching contest at Madison Square Garden, which led to assignments illustrating western pulp magazines, comic strips, and dime novels, including The Lone Ranger and Red Ryder.

Gunfight at the O.K . Corral The First Six Seconds [1997], oil, 32 x 48.,painting, southwest art.
Gunfight at the O.K . Corral—The First Six Seconds [1997], oil, 32 x 48.

In 1941 Hampton ventured west and worked on a ranch near Silver City, NM, before going to the Pacific for four years of wartime service in the U.S. Army. Afterward he returned to New Mexico and then, in 1958, moved to Arizona. By then a fine-art painter, he made friends with Arizona artists Joe Beeler, Charlie Dye, and George Phippen, back before any of them became famous.

In 1964, Hampton, Beeler, and Dye went on a cattle roundup near Nogales, Mexico. They camped with the cowboys high in the mountains, where it was bone-chilling cold in November. They began each day with hot coffee beside a roaring fire, then rode all day. After a dinner of frijoles and beef, they laughed themselves to sleep in their bedrolls telling stories. On the drive home, Hampton says, “We talked about how there were a few other guys like us scattered over the West and we ought to get us ‘lone wolves’ together once in a while, maybe start a little cow-crowd club of cowboy artists.”

At the time, Hampton says, only about half a dozen artists were doing western cowboy art. Internationally, abstract modern art movements were taking hold, and anything different was definitely at a disadvantage. “The more I thought about it, the more I got steamed up about what we could do to promote western art if we’d get together,” Hampton says. “With the right publicity, we could direct our own destiny, set standards, help the collector to know the difference between the good and the bad. We didn’t need to sit around and wait for the East to say something good about us.”

John Hampton. southwest art.
John Hampton.

Hampton, Beeler, Dye, and Phippen gathered at Bird’s Oak Creek Tavern in Sedona, AZ, on June 23, 1965. They formed the Cowboy Artists of America that day and had their picture taken for posterity. Soon they mounted the first CAA show, and western cowboy art began to surge in popularity. Today, the annual CAA exhibition attracts collectors from around the world and sells millions of dollars in paintings and sculpture. “We have added a lot of art to the annals of the world that wouldn’t have been painted otherwise,” Hampton says.

The artist intends to contribute even more paintings, drawings, and sculpture to the legacy of western art from his new ranch surroundings. The way he sees life at 80, the stirrups may seem a little higher these days when he’s getting on a horse, but he can still swing into the saddle just fine. And Hampton figures that as long as a man can do that, he can do just about anything.

Photos courtesy Hampton Studios, Ltd., Sonoita, AZ; Troy’s Western Heritage Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ; Gilbert Ortega Art Gallery & Museum, Scottsdale, AZ; and Christine Mollring, Carefree, AZ.

Featured in June 1999