Texas artist Mary Ross Buchholz honors the traditions of western life
By Gussie Fauntleroy
This story was featured in the January 2014 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art January 2014 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
Where the vastness of the flat West Texas landscape begins to ease into gently rolling hills, artist Mary Ross Buchholz and her husband, Bob, were walking a portion of ranchland 18 years ago, deciding where to build their home. They stopped in the shade of a live oak tree and looked around. It was a spot, they knew, where cattle liked to bed down, which meant it was more likely than other places to catch a cool breeze. So they chose that location for their house. “We were just thinking about how the old timers would know what to do,” Buchholz remembers, sitting in the neat, functional studio she and Bob later added onto their home.
Time-tested wisdom about living on the land and raising livestock, passed down through generations, is part of what Buchholz cherishes about western life. It’s what she expresses in her remarkable pencil drawings, which document the animals, people, and everyday life of a working ranch—primarily her family’s ranch. Spread out over several West Texas counties and originally worked by various branches of her family and Bob’s, the ranch represents a continuity of tradition reaching back centuries in Mary’s mother’s family, and at least five generations on her father’s side.
Steeped in such long tradition, Buchholz infuses her work with a sense of authenticity that clearly resonates with collectors drawn to a classic vision of western life—collectors with on-the-range experience and those for whom her art is a reminder of the beauty, history, and culture of the American West. Among the 44-year-old artist’s top awards in recent years are her selection as Signature Artist at the America’s Horse in Art Show; First Place and an Award of Excellence at American Plains Artists exhibitions; and the Artists’ Choice Award at the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame’s Heart of the West show.
Growing up, young Mary had an obvious knack for drawing but did not envision a future in fine art. She also didn’t go in for rodeo, as many of her friends did. When her mother offered a choice of activities, she picked gymnastics and later tennis, training and competing in San Angelo, 50 miles away. Along with her two older brothers, she also was fully involved in the local 4-H Club, immersing herself in skills and activities integral to ranch life. (She continues to work with 4-H today, coaching judging teams.) During the school year the family lived in town, while summers were spent on the ranch. “I loved being at the ranch, being with the horses and animals,” she says.
Buchholz earned a bachelor’s degree in animal science at Texas A&M University and married during her senior year. A few years later her interest in art, which had been hovering at the edges of her life, received a major boost. Her mother, a former art major with a strong creative bent, began pursuing her own interest in drawing and painting and invited her daughter to join her. “My mother said, ‘Come on, we’re going to take art lessons together!’ She knew I always had an interest in art; I drew pictures as a little girl, and she put them on the fridge,” Buchholz recalls.
Mother and daughter signed up for classes and began painting and showing their work together. They made trips to art museums around the United States and Europe, treasuring their time together and sharing their deep love of art. Buchholz’s subjects at that time were often commissioned portrait drawings of children. Later she refined her skills through workshops with acclaimed artists including Anthony Ryder, Sherrie McGraw, and Huihan Liu. “I was at a point in my life where I didn’t know what direction I wanted my art to go,” she relates. “You can go in the direction of the artists you like or just break away and do something totally different.”
Buchholz headed down her own path, absorbing lessons from each experience and integrating them into her chosen subjects and style. “It seems like I would get back home every time and have a eureka moment: Oh! I get it!” she says, smiling. Her drawings and paintings began featuring animals and other imagery from ranch life, which soon caught the attention of collectors. At one point the artist’s husband and mother encouraged her to focus on graphite and charcoal on paper, recognizing her unusual talent and the potential of drawing as a western art niche. She followed their advice—and watched her career take off.
The unwavering family support that helped Buchholz get started continues in her daily life today. With three sons old enough to feed horses, care for kid goats, and tend to the other morning chores, she is able to spend most of her time in the studio. There she sits with a drawing board propped between her lap and a desk. The position allows her to swivel easily to study the work in a mirror, checking for the strong composition, range of values, and delicate play of light and shadow that define her approach. A basket of pencils ranging from soft to hard lead, charcoal sticks, and oil-based charcoal pencils—some color coded for quick identification—sit waiting to be plucked up. “It’s good to know the limits and capabilities of your pencils and paper, so you’ll know what results to expect,” she explains. She also keeps an easel set up in the studio, with plans to spend more time painting in oils when she can. “But I’m never going to leave behind my drawing,” she says. “Drawing is one of the most primitive of art forms, and for me, the process is meditative as well.”
As Buchholz looks for a subject, the first thing that always catches her attention, especially in a horse, is also where she almost always places her pencil to start a new piece: the eyes. “The eyes are my favorite part of an animal,” she says. “I feel like that’s where you’re able to see the life; as people say, the eye captures the soul of the horse. I want my pieces to not only look real, but feel real. I’m always mindful of the horse’s personality and hope each piece is portrayed with honesty and simplicity.”
As Bob and the couple’s sons go about the business of raising and caring for animals—meat goats, cattle, and sheep, along with working horses and border collies—Mary helps when she’s needed and often watches with her camera when she’s not. Her photos, which she uses only for reference, serve as the jumping-off point for telling a story or revealing a moment in the world of ranch life. More often than not, these moments are quiet ones, before or after the flying dust. BREAK TIME, for instance, offers a cropped glimpse of her husband resting in the saddle during team roping, his rope looped and ready for more. Bob’s mount is Don, his longtime partner in team roping. “I guess he’s kind of photogenic,” Buchholz declares, and then laughs and clarifies, “The horse, I mean—and my husband, too.”
With a lifelong love of portraiture, Buchholz finds beauty not only in horses and people, but also in less expected places, including the “very pretty eyes of a Hereford cow.” Other images may feature the family’s dogs. “The way of the West is fading away. I see it evolving to survive,” Buchholz observes. Yet remaining through the changes are timeless values her ancestors lived by and passed down, including teamwork, respect for the experience of elders with a deep understanding of the land, and strong family ties. “At one point I realized, ‘You know what? Everything I need is out my back door.’ I can just walk out and my subject matter is staring me in the face,” Buchholz marvels. “I’ve just been blessed that what I enjoy drawing is right here.”
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