By Norman Kolpas
Luminous watercolors by Texan J. Mark Kohler capture the quiet nobility of real working cowboys
|FRESH SHIRT AND A FAST HORSE, WATERCOLOR, 14 X 9|
It was a sunny mid-May day on the CV Ranch, a big old spread in the Chino Valley northwest of Prescott, AZ. The cowboys broke for lunch after a grueling morning that had seen them start before dawn, bringing in, wrestling, and branding some 150 calves. That same number awaited them again in the afternoon.
One of the hands, Walter Weir, took a breather. He sat on a rickety folding chair in the middle of the encampment, dirt and dust smearing the shirt and jeans that had been sparkling clean and freshly pressed when he put them on just hours before. Weir pulled out a tobacco pouch and, head bowed and shoulders slumped, fixed to place a chaw in his mouth.
Standing a respectful distance away, artist J. Mark Kohler raised his digital camera and, in a rapid series of snaps, recorded the scene, which included a battered red pickup truck that had known its share of rocky ranch roads and a teepee where another cowboy dozed. Soon, Weir nodded off, too. “He fell asleep with the tobacco still in his mouth,” Kohler recalls.
Weeks later, back at Kohler’s studio in a spare room of his home in Sabinal, TX, a town on the edge of the Hill Country, he transformed that digital reference into whipped seven ways from sunday, a luminous watercolor that quietly captures the grit and nobility of the working cowboy’s life. Last year Kohler entered the piece in the Phippen Museum’s Western Art Show and Sale, and it won first place in the watercolor category.
That honor was just the latest milestone in a fine-art career that could genuinely be described as meteoric, considering that Kohler, now 43, devoted himself full time to painting scarcely a dozen years ago. Yet, every twist and turn of his life led him toward his current success.
You could not pry the pencil out of my hand when I was a kid,” he recalls of his childhood in Austin, where the biggest influence on his young life was his grandfather, William “Duke” Beasley. “Both my parents worked,” says Kohler, “and I would spend the whole summer with him. It was just the best time. He was a fantastic craftsman, and he had a workshop where he made fiddles and grandfather clocks and knives and taught himself to sew and to paint in oils.” Duke always bought his grandson art materials. “Whenever I was with him, we would paint or draw. There’s no time I can remember not doing that.”
By the time Kohler entered high school, he was primed to benefit from an extraordinary opportunity: Texas-born Hispanic/Indian artist Amado Peña, now a powerhouse among Southwestern artists, was then just beginning his career and primarily earning a living teaching art in public schools. “He had a window of time in Austin,” Kohler marvels, “and I hit all four years with him.”
|HOLDING OUR GROUND, WATERCOLOR, 15 X 22|
Studies with Peña provided more than just training in drawing and painting, “though he helped us a lot with technique, and had us do framing for him, too,” says Kohler. “He was intense. He was also just beginning to break through. I learned from him that art was a very serious profession, that you had to work at a high level in order to succeed. And I thought, this could be my career, too.”
After high school, he entered the art department at Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos, where he specialized in illustration. “If you wanted to study fine art, the path was really contemporary and nontraditional,” he explains. “I thought of myself as a fine artist, but to do figurative work I had to go the illustration route. And once you’re on that train, you can’t really get off it.”
After graduating, Kohler headed back home to Austin, where he earned a living as a freelance illustrator. He also developed a reputation for fine calligraphy, and mid-1980s album covers for local musicians like Texas country singer Gary P. Nunn and boogie-blues rockers Omar & the Howlers bear his handiwork. “I would write the word ‘Omar’ over and over again with a ruling pen until we got one that worked,” he laughs.
But the constant grind of freelancing eventually caught up with him. “I got burnout and just felt I wasn’t accomplishing anything meaningful,” he says. Fortunately, he had a new ally and touchstone in his wife, Pam. He met Pam, a production artist, in 1982 at an agency he’d worked for, and they married four years later. With her support, he quit illustrating, and from 1992 to ’95 he worked full time as an insurance adjustor while he began, in his spare time, to paint fine-art watercolors. “It’s always been watercolors for me,” says Kohler. “I like the airy freshness of it. And you can create so many atmospheric effects with it—dust and haze and sky…”
Featured in February 2008