Karin Hollebeke | Walking Into the Old West

Karin Hollebeke’s historical paintings let viewers imagine themselves in an earlier time

By Gussie Fauntleroy

When the Stage Runs Late, oil, 26 x 40.

Karin Hollebeke sometimes wonders how she got from there to here—from a little girl in an apartment in Germany, where she dreamed of horses and a cinematic vision of the American Old West, to living on a wide-open western ranch and virtually inhabiting 19th-century scenarios through her art. She couldn’t have planned the whole thing better if she’d tried. And she could not have known, at each step along the way, that pieces of the puzzle were slowly coming together to give her all the experiences, encouragement, inspiration, and skills she would need to produce paintings that also bring the viewer along on a consummate journey into the past.

The past feels like an intimately familiar time in Hollebeke’s widely collected art. While an image may refer to a historic event or circumstance, the artist’s interest is in more ordinary moments before or between the tense, dramatic ones. Her paintings quietly invite viewers to imagine themselves among the characters, whose comfortable, timeless portrayal avoids the anachronistic look of current-day models posing stiffly in period dress. “I want you to feel like you could walk in there and be part of the scene, like you could walk up to one of these people and strike up a conversation,” the 62-year-old artist explains.

Karin Hollebeke | The Calm Before the Storm, oil, 28 x 42.

Karin Hollebeke | The Calm Before the Storm, oil, 28 x 42.

Sitting in her home on a sprawling northeastern Utah ranch, with a Charlie Russell-inspired log studio a short walk away, Hollebeke thinks back to the genesis of her long and passionate affair with the American West. It started with colored pencils and a young German girl’s imagination, as she sat in her family’s apartment drawing a fantasy world of horses and dogs she couldn’t have. When she was 10, her family bought a television for the first time, and Karin’s daydreams began to resemble movies of the Old West. So at age 12 she could hardly contain her excitement when her father, an engineer for Volkswagen, learned he was being transferred to the United States. After crossing the Atlantic by ship and arriving in New York Harbor, she got her first glimpse at the country that would become her new home. “I really believed America looked like those movies,” she remembers, smiling. “Imagine my disappointment when I saw skyscrapers.”

But America soon began to give her, piece by piece, what she was looking for. In Pennsylvania, she was befriended by another German girl who helped her learn English and, more importantly perhaps, who also loved horses and loved to draw them. Better still, the friend invited Karin to go riding with her at the local stables. “It was absolute heaven for me. My fantasy all along was to ride, to do the cowboy thing,” the artist relates. At about the same time, she won a scholarship for art tutorials through a popular correspondence school. Inspired by examples of work by Robert Lougheed and other acclaimed illustrators of the day, she chose the program’s courses in illustration and design—studies that turned out to be an ideal fit for her eventual direction in art.

Karin Hollebeke | In Search of Snakes and Horses, oil, 36 x 40.

Karin Hollebeke | In Search of Snakes and Horses, oil, 36 x 40.

The next piece of the puzzle fell into place three years later, when Karin’s family moved to El Paso, TX. While spending time at a riding academy there, she met, rode with, and eventually married the academy owners’ handsome cowboy son. Wayne Hollebeke was from a family of longtime area ranchers, and he introduced Karin to the modern-day western life. Lending a hand with the Hollebekes’ ranching operation—and later helping out with neighbors’ cattle drives after moving to Utah—she saw her cowgirl fantasy morph into the satisfying, in-the-saddle reality of a working ranch.

Although art was not her primary activity in those days, it did not go away. Once a year or so, Hollebeke would pull out her oil paints, set up an easel in the kitchen, and paint every day for a week. “Then one year I just couldn’t quit. I painted, and it just kept coming—I couldn’t get enough of it,” she recounts. As the landscape and still-life paintings began stacking up against the walls, her husband finally spoke up. “These paintings are nice,” he said, “but what’s your plan?” She didn’t have one, but her mother-in-law mentioned an art show at a local mall. Hollebeke entered, and all her paintings sold.

Gradually the artist found herself incorporating human and animal figures into her landscape scenes—a saddled horse beside a weathered barn, an old horse-drawn wagon, a contemporary cowboy like the friends and neighbors she knew. “My paintings just kind of evolved into western and cowboy scenes,” she notes. And as her husband dug deeper into his family’s ancestry, recalling boyhood memories of his great-uncles’ ranch, Hollebeke was drawn more deeply into western lore as well. “He was really instrumental in guiding me in the direction of the Old West ways,” she says.

Trading Days at Bridger’s Fort, 1843, oil, 20 x 28.

Today the meticulous preparation that goes into each of Hollebeke’s paintings can involve months of research. She reads books; studies journals kept by explorers, settlers, mountain men, and army officers; and visits western locations where the events reflected in her art occurred. Surrounding her in her “warm, cozy” log-cabin studio are everyday objects and clothing from the 19th century as well as period military equipment and specialized surveying tools. These provide visual reference for the extremely high degree of historic accuracy the artist demands in her work.

“I’m immersing myself in the Old West, practically living it—it’s all I think 
about when I’m doing the research,” she says. “Here I am with these characters and stories in journals, learning about them, what their worries, their thoughts, their plans were. I feel like I’m part of it, emotionally invested in it, and if I can get the viewer to feel that same way, that’s one of my goals.”

After settling on a subject for a new painting—which is often a nearly impossible decision, with limitless ideas vying for her attention—Hollebeke follows her extensive research with a series of small sketches to lay out potential compositions. Then a more detailed drawing is done, and the image grows and evolves. “I put in, I take out, I change things to come up with the best way to represent that time and place,” she observes. Finally she collects the appropriate garments and accoutrements and hires models for the figures she will paint. But since models have day jobs and busy lives, she can’t pose them all together at once. Working with one or sometimes two models at a time, she acts almost as a film director, arranging poses and gestures for characters that will become interrelated parts of a finely detailed finished scene.

The Strategists, oil, 30 x 42.

A good example is TRADING DAYS AT BRIDGER’S FORT, 1843. It brings together cultures that, in the early days of Western expansion, often enjoyed a respectful and mutually beneficial relationship. Native traders in their finest dress trade with mountain men at a southwestern Wyoming fort that served, among other things, as a supply depot and blacksmith shop. To gather visual references as well as firsthand experience in the taste, feel, smell, and emotion of the time, the artist sometimes attends current-day rendezvous gatherings around the West, where no trace of post-19th-century life is allowed.

One thing that particularly intrigues Hollebeke is the time period just prior to important historic events. In 1874, two years before Custer’s Battle of the Little Bighorn, for example, the general was scouting in the Black Hills of South Dakota, accompanied by prospectors, newspaper correspondents, natural history experts, and others. The party’s official goal was to locate the best site for a military post, with studies of the region’s plant and animal life on the side. But another, unspoken, aim was to search for gold. As part of her research for THE STRATEGISTS, Hollebeke followed the scouting party’s actual trail. Looking back from a 21st-century perspective, she felt the poignancy of knowing gold was found in the Black Hills, with the resulting rush ushering in devastation for the Sioux people and culture on whose sacred land it was found.

While many of Hollebeke’s paintings refer to more peaceful chapters in the history of the American West, the imagery’s larger historical context is always an important element in her work. “It’s not just a particular moment in time. I want the viewer to take the journey—from where these characters have been [to] where they’re going in their lives,” she reflects. “It’s a story that began somewhere and will end somewhere else, and this is just a glimpse.”

Legacy Gallery, Jackson WY, and Scottsdale, AZ.

Featured in February 2012.