Kim Mackey | Small-Town Roots

Sunset on the Purgatory, oil, 24 x 30. painting, southwest art.
Sunset on the Purgatory, oil, 24 x 30.

By Rose Glaser

The Arkansas River runs across the southern part of Colorado and through the town of Pueblo. In the early 1800s the river formed anatural border between the United States and Mexico; later, annexation and war forever changed the map. Today, though, there’s no sign of conflict in this sleepy western town, and the once-muddy wagon trails have been paved over—still meandering but much smoother. The folks in Pueblo are building a river walk along the Arkansas now, similar to the one in San Antonio, TX. But mostly things here are as they’ve always been—quiet. And that suits Kim Mackey just fine.

“What you see is what you get,” says Mac-key of the town where he grew up. “Pueblo hasn’t undergone that yuppie invasion. When I moved back here from Denver, I was coming home. It’s a smaller town, better to raise the kids, and no rush-hour traffic.” He left Pueblo after high school to study illustration at the Colorado Institute of Art in Denver. Then he chose to stay in the big city to take advantage of its stronger job market for illustrators. But he never really left his small-town roots.


Snow Skiffs, oil, 11 x 14. painting, southwest art.
Snow Skiffs, oil, 11 x 14.

Throughout Mackey’s commercial art career, which included a stint as a police sketch artist, he always worked toward being able to paint what he wanted instead of what some art director told him to design. In 1985, the break from commercial work came as his galleries started demanding more paintings than he could create in between illustration jobs. This freedom meant not only the ability to choose his own subject matter but also that he and his family could live anywhere they wanted. For Mackey, that meant returning to the source of his inspiration.

“I was so anxious to get back to this part of the country because I just couldn’t find this way of life in Denver,” he says. “Everything is disappearing so fast. Southern Colorado is more conducive to my creativity. It hasn’t been subdivided; the country and the people are still pretty much as they always have been.”


Ranch Haystacks, oil, 18 x 24. painting, southwest art.
Ranch Haystacks, oil, 18 x 24.

As he stepped into his fine-art career on a full-time basis, Mackey relied on the sound advice he once received from legendary western artist Olaf Wieghorst. “He told me to stay on track, paint what appealed to me, and paint what I knew,” says Mackey. To this day, those words remain a guiding light.

Mackey hasn’t always concentrated on the western imagery for which he is best known today, however. He has always painted a variety of subjects, from still lifes to figures, but it was a gallery owner who changed Mackey’s focus. After selling the last of Mackey’s paintings, the dealer gave him a call asking him to just bring in anything. “All I had was a little painting of a horse and a rider,” Mackey says. “When I brought it over, he said, ‘Wow, I didn’t know you did this.’ To me, ranching was just something I grew up with. I took it for granted. The gallery immediately sold the painting and asked for more. Soon I had collectors asking for them.”


Curiosity, oil, 11 x 14. painting, southwest art.
Curiosity, oil, 11 x 14.

The rural life that he personally knows and loves is now the heart of Mackey’s work. “I come from a long line of pioneer cattlemen,” says Mackey. “My great-grandfather was a rancher. He homesteaded a place in southeastern Colorado that’s still in the family. There aren’t many family ranches that can trace their roots back that far. When I was a kid I worked on that ranch in the summertime. I did really glamorous things like stacking hay and waking up at five in the morning to go brand cattle. As a kid, it was nothing but hard work. But when I reflect back on it, that’s where I draw a lot of my inspiration. I think it’s in the genes.”

While Mackey depicts the family history in oils, his brother Kevin carries on tradition with his own ranch outside Pueblo. Many of Mackey’s paintings are of his brother and his brother’s friends out working the land, employing the same techniques used by generations before them.

Mackey has also spent time gathering imagery at Chico Basin, the largest working ranch in Colorado, located between Pueblo and Colorado Springs. And though he occasionally travels outside the area, he says that most of what he’s looking for is right here in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. “It’s not hard to find subject matter here,” says Mackey. “This kind of life still exists. People think it’s not as prevalent anymore, but it really is.”

In addition to ranching scenes and contemporary cowboys, Mackey is drawn to the Pueblo Indians as subjects for many paintings. “The landscape and the Native Americans I paint are from northern New Mexico,” he says. “They are indigenous to this part of the country, and they have a unique and picturesque lifestyle that has always had appeal not only to me but to the early artists who painted here.”

Mackey also enjoys the challenge of painting nocturnal landscapes. “A full moon does something to a landscape that is very intriguing,” he says. “It’s mysterious and tranquil. There is something about the color, composition, and mood that makes me want to see if I can put it down on canvas and convey the feeling that I had to the viewer. It’s some kind of internal thing that I can’t really convey. I think all art is.”

Although Mackey primarily paints in his studio, working with field studies and photographs for reference, he also enjoys getting out into the canyons around his home to paint on location—a task that keeps him honest. “I don’t ever want to be a formula painter,” Mackey says. “I think that as long as I keep a fresh eye, approach other subject matter like still life, and work plein-air, I won’t fall into that trap—there will always be a new challenge. And that helps my western cowboy paintings.”

Teaching, though demanding, is another thing Mackey has found adds to his own work and keeps him honest. “I learn and discover things from the people in my classes,” he says. “I can’t get lazy because they are always picking my brain. I always have to be on my game.”

In addition to fine-tuning his understanding of painting, the people who take Mackey’s workshops give him reason to reflect on his own good fortune. They often tell him how they wanted to paint as kids but were never allowed to consider art as a career, he says, and he feels blessed to have always made his living creating art. Of all the influences in his life, he most warmly remembers his parents, who believed in his dream. “I must say that both of my parents were always very encouraging, my mother especially,” Mackey explains. “When I was 4 years old she bought me my first set of oils. She was the one who really exposed me to art galleries. I remember as a kid waking up in the morning and she’d ask if I wanted to go to Taos. We’d drive down to New Mexico and make a day of seeing the galleries.”

Mackey cites George Phippen, Nicolai Fechin, and Joaquin Sorolla as artistic influences on his work. He also holds dear the kind words from artists like Norman Rockwell and cartoonist Charles Schulz, who responded to the letters he wrote as a youngster. “When I was a kid I knew what I wanted to do—I wanted to paint. So I would find the people that I admired and correspond with them. I was a pesky little kid, but they were kind enough to speak to me and give me some very good advice. Norman Rockwell encouraged me to go to art school, and in fact he was the one who pointed me in the direction of illustration.”

Every experience in Mackey’s life has become fuel for his work, including his years as a police sketch artist. “It was emotional because you were right in the middle of people’s misery,” he says, “but it taught me a lot about character. It taught me how to talk to people and how to empathize. It taught me that life is fleeting and you better value every minute. I translate that into my painting in that an artistic gift is just that, a gift. I’m truly thankful.”

Photos courtesy the artist and Saks Galleries, Denver, CO; Huntsman Gallery of Fine Art, Aspen, CO; Smith-Klein Gallery, Boulder, CO; and Meyer Gallery, Park City, UT.

Rose Glaser wrote about Skip Whitcomb’s studio in the January issue.

Featured in March 2001