By Gussie Fauntleroy
Sculptor T.D. Kelsey remembers the day last October when the Cowboy Artists of America were voting on whether he should become one of the prestigious art group’s newest members. Kelsey had been asked to bring several of his best sculptures to the Phoenix Ritz-Carlton where the CAs were gathering for their annual show at the Phoenix Art Museum. He’d been told to leave his work there and go away, but to stay near a phone. “I was holding my breath, sweating, and waiting for a phone call,” the 59-year-old, Texas-based artist recounts. “I was scared plumb to death I would make it, and scared plumb to death I wouldn’t.”
He did. So did western painters Clark Kelley Price and Dave Powell. In October 2004, the three joined the organization’s 25 active and 9 emeritus members in the aim of preserving the spirit of the West through high-quality, authentically depicted painting and sculpture. As with all CA members, Kelsey, Price, and Powell create art that is deeply informed by a wealth of on-the-ground and on-horseback western experience. All three grew up in the northern Rocky Mountains and continue to live in the West.
“All three are very fine artists,” declares Joe Beeler, who in 1965 was among the Cowboy Artists of America’s four founding members. “They each have distinguished careers, and they bring talent and personalities to our group that will be a great addition.” Artists interested in joining the CA apply for membership and send transparencies of their work to a screening committee. Those who make it through the screening are asked to bring originals of their work in October, Beeler explains. It’s a small group, and some years no new members are added.
Price, 60, not only creates western art, he’s lived the western rural lifestyle all his life. Really rural. He spent the first three years of his life in the mountains of Idaho in a log cabin built by his parents with an ax and saw. Surrounded by wildlife, the family dined on game, fish, watercress, and other food right off the land. They used kerosene lamps, living in a way that echoed earlier times. “I think it made a big impact on me,” reflects Price, who went to high school in Idaho Falls and earned a bachelor’s degree at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT.
Powell, at 50 the youngest of the inductees, grew up in Montana and can trace a direct link to the great western artist Charlie Russell: Powell’s grandparents were summertime neighbors of Russell’s. Russell and his wife, Nancy, often entertained friends at their Bullhead Lodge, and Nancy would ask Powell’s grandmother to come over and help with the cooking and baking, while Powell’s grandfather would guide the Russells’ friends on wilderness trail rides. Charlie and Nancy gave Powell’s father, Ace, his first childhood paint-box set. Ace Powell went on to become a prolific western artist; Dave Powell’s mother was a painter as well, creating an art-filled boyhood environment for Dave, who was raised in Kalispell, MT.
Kelsey grew up in Montana, too. He was fascinated with drawing and forming figures in mud as a boy. Yet art was secondary on his family’s ranch north of Bozeman, where daylight hours were spent working cattle, mending fences, and in the endless chores of ranch life. It was a life Kelsey loved. His hand has remained in ranching even as he learned to fly (at 16, after his father died, he traded three rifles for a 1941 Piper Cub), worked as an airline pilot, built his own airplane, and performed aerobatics, all the while sculpting in his free time. The artist has traveled the world studying wildlife and horse/livestock cultures and recently relocated to Texas.
For many years Kelsey raised longhorns and champion cutting horses and served as a judge in registered cutting-horse competitions. It was only recently that he sold his Montana ranch to buy a 17,000-acre portion of the vast, historic 6666 Ranch in north-central Texas. One of the first buildings made ready for use was a large studio for monumental sculpture. There he immediately set to work on a half-dozen commissioned pieces. Kelsey’s impressionistic wildlife and western bronzes are shown at the National Museum of Wildlife Art and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center and are collected by broadcaster Tom Brokaw.
Up in Idaho where Price spent most of his youth, the future painter worked as a timber jack, trapper, and ranch hand, then followed his father into construction. But it was always the cowboying he loved most—working around horses and cattle, teaming up with men he considered “some of the best people” he’s ever known. Even when the work was toughest, he brought perspective to the situation by casting an artist’s appreciative eye on the scene, envisioning how it would look as a painting.
There came a moment when Price knew it was time to make the leap into full-time art. It was the coldest day of winter, sub-zero. He was standing on an icy scaffold, hammering nails under the eaves of a house while shivering and sweating with chills and fever from the flu. At that point, a thought rang through his mind like a bell: Clark, there’s got to be a better way!
Since that day in 1973, Price’s career has been marked by honors and awards, including recognition from Arts for the Parks and the Wyoming Historical Society Award for excellence in the portrayal of Wyoming history. His paintings portray scenes of drama and suspense but also focus on ordinary moments of quiet gratitude and pleasure—a father and son unlatching the gate at home after a successful day of hunting, or a solitary cowboy warming himself by a campfire. A family man of strong faith, Price reaches through time to offer the viewer a window on similar feelings lived out in the frontier world. Today the artist and his family live south of Jackson Hole, WY, in the Star Valley.
Ever since his early connection with Charles Russell, Powell’s art career has been characterized by dedication to historical accuracy in portrayals of the Old West. Having inherited his father’s sizable art library and added to it, the artist today owns more than 3,000 reference volumes. The books line shelves in his studio, which once was the grocery and dry-goods section of an old mercantile store in the small town of Simms, MT, west of Great Falls.
Unlike many of his fellow CAs, Powell has not only lived in the authentic West but also contributed to Hollywood’s version of it as a motion-picture costumer. After Slim Pickens visited the Powell home and noted the buckskin clothes Powell had made as a kid, Pickens asked then 19-year-old Powell to create western costumes for the movie Winter Hawk. It was the first of many films and television productions for which the artist has done costuming and historical consulting, among them Silverado, Lonesome Dove, Good Old Boys, and most recently, Seabiscuit.
In his fine art and illustrations, Powell’s oil and watercolor paintings recall Charlie Russell’s historical precision and artistic talent but also demonstrate his own sense of humor. Powell chuckles as he recalls seeing a copy of a 1902 newspaper ad seeking cowhands in Nevada. In a job where dessert was a luxury, the ranch foreman aimed to lure hands with the promise of “thirty dollars a month, shelter, and prunes.”
All three new CAs share a sense of relating to everyday people and upholding the values of an earlier era in the West. “I think there’s a little bit of cowboy in everybody,” observes Price. “The Cowboy Artists reach out and invite the cowboy in everybody to learn a little, see a little through their art.”
To that Kelsey adds, “Honesty, loyalty, integrity, a work ethic. Those things were common, and they’re not quite as prevalent today.” But Kelsey sees these qualities in his fellow CA members: “It’s really going to be a challenge to live up to, because these guys are so good and serious and dedicated.”
As for Powell, he says, “My goal with art is to inspire people about what I call ‘good medicine’: courage, honesty, loyalty, kindness, gentleness. If you can look at these pictures after fighting traffic and dealing with the rough modern world, if you can escape through the art….” He lets the listener fill in the rest, then adds a final thought: “I hope to touch some chord of humanity in all that.”
Kelsey is represented by Simpson Gallagher Gallery,
Cody, WY; Buffalo Trail Gallery, Jackson, WY; and www.tdkelsey.com. Price is represented by Trailside Galleries, Jackson, WY, and Scottsdale, AZ; Williams Fine Art, Salt Lake City, UT; and www.clarkkelleyprice.com. Powell is represented by Buffalo Trail Gallery, Jackson, WY, and Powell Studios, Simms, MT.
Featured in March 2005