Phil Beck | Western Visions

Arizona artist phil beck specialized in native american portraits and scenes of the ranching life

By Dawn Blanchard

As he gazed out of the second-floor window of his Scottsdale, AZ, motel room one dusky evening, 29-year-old Phil Beck noticed a large painting walking across the plaza. A few moments later he realized the scene was not as surreal as it first appeared—an artist was carrying the painting. At the time, Beck didn’t realize that this was a pivotal moment in his life, a moment that would lead him from an illustration career in Chicago to a fine-art career in Arizona.

Beck was born and raised in Los Angeles, CA, and relocated with his parents to cold, gray Chicago when he was in the seventh grade. The young Californian started drawing early in life and showed great promise. In fact, one of his teachers pointed out to his parents that Beck was the only student in his kindergarten class to draw a set of railroad tracks in perspective, an accomplishment unusual in one so young. But the young teenager from California hated his new life in Chicago, where he was enrolled in a Catholic school with no art program.

“We didn’t have art, we had religion,” Beck recalls. “That actually came in handy later, because when I finally got a job, I prayed that I wouldn’t get fired.” It turned out that he didn’t need those prayers. Directly out of high school, Beck began a career in commercial art without any training. He was successful at doing key-lines and paste-ups and even managed to squeeze in a few small illustration jobs on the side. He enrolled in the American Academy of Fine Art in Chicago to further hone his illustration skills. During his studies he met a classmate named Marty whose friendship meant a lot to him. After graduation, Marty got married, and Beck got serious about his career. The two friends said goodbye to travel the different paths their lives were taking.

The first time I sold anything was a portrait of an American Indian in pastel to a man in a hamburger joint,” Beck says. At that time, he was a successful freelance illustrator for a major Chicago design firm. When a fellow illustrator commented that Beck’s work was more similar to fine art than illustration, he was temporarily offended. But the comment soon sparked an idea in his mind, an idea that would lead him back to fine art.

 Arizona artist Phil Beck specializes in Native American portraits and scenes of the ranching life

When Beck was 29, he made the decision to leave Chicago and return to Los Angeles to continue his freelance career on the West Coast. On the way he had that fateful stopover in Scottsdale, where he watched an artist carrying a painting down the street. The artist was Bob French, and Beck made it a point to meet him. French introduced him to Scottsdale’s art scene, and Beck’s stay stretched to two weeks. Arriving in Los Angeles with his Arizona experience fresh in his mind, he was sorely disappointed in what he found.

“It’s true what they say, you can never go back,” Beck says of his return to Los Angeles. The city he remembered from his childhood was gone, and it wasn’t long before he knew Los Angeles was not the place for him. Turning his back on opportunities in Hollywood and at studios such as Disney, Beck returned to Scottsdale in 1980, deciding to plunge into fine art.

“I got there at a time when the art market was hot,” Beck recalls. “You could drop-kick a painting, and before it hit the street it would sell.” He seemed to have found his true calling, but then a nasty twist of fate changed his life. Within a four-year span his mother, father, and girlfriend all died. Beck simply stopped painting and shut down to deal with his losses. With no direction and little interest, he aimlessly drifted through the next few years.

Arizona artist Phil Beck specializes in Native American portraits and scenes of the ranching life

When asked what’s had the most profound effect on his art career, Beck answers without hesitation. “I would have to say Marty,” he says. The bouncy, energetic classmate from his Art Academy days in Chicago was also living in Scottsdale and had just finished going through a divorce. From their first reunion, Marty brought encouragement and inspiration back into Beck’s life. Soon he was teaching work-shops at the Scottsdale Artists School and pursuing his own fine-art career.

Today, Beck is best known for figurative oil paintings that capture a feeling of history at a specific moment in time. Native Americans, hard-working cowboys, cattle, and geese are frequent subjects. His sensitive portraits of young children and families are rendered in a loose, painterly style that has a serene feeling of warm, happy days. He carefully selects his models and works from photos, sketches, and real-life settings. His quick pencil sketches are gems in their own right, and his technique for quickly creating sketches that can be used as reference for paintings in the studio make him a highly sought-after instructor. In the last couple of years, however, he has reduced the number of workshops he teaches and begun dedicating almost all of his time to his painting.

He and Marty have been married for eight years now, and she continues to play a large role in his artistic career. Critiquing his work, helping to photograph and inventory each piece, and making sure he eats and sleeps is a large part of that job. “If there’s one thing I can say that would sum up Phil’s work, it would have to be his passion,” Marty says. “To paint day in and day out has to be total passion.” Putting her own artistic career on the back burner is one sacrifice she doesn’t seem to mind because of the joy she gets from watching her husband’s success.

Arizona artist Phil Beck specializes in Native American portraits and scenes of the ranching life

Beck was recently invited to become a member of the Western Artists of America, a new group dedicated to promoting the talents of artists who specialize in the genres of cowboy, Indian, pioneer, cattle, and equine art. Beck walked away with three awards, including best of show, at the organization’s inaugural show held at the Tucson Museum of Art last February.

Since the first powwow he attended on an Indian reservation south of Scottsdale, Beck has felt a deep connection with his new home in Arizona. There he met a young Native American girl named Becky, and she and her family became the subject of many paintings over the fol-lowing years. Thousands of sittings and hundreds of paintings later, he still feels the same love for what he does.

Dawn Blanchard is an artist and freelance writer living in Arizona. She recently completed her first novel.

Beck is represented by El Presidio Gallery, Tucson, AZ; Wadle Galleries Ltd., Santa Fe, NM; and West Lives On Gallery, Jackson Hole, WY.

Featured in November 2002