John Fawcett | Riding High

By Mark Mussari

In 1991, John Fawcett was a successful veterinarian living in Pennsylvania when a trip to Tucson to see the Mountain Oyster Club’s annual western art show proved to be a life-changing experience. “I was enthralled by western art,” says Fawcett. So enthralled, in fact, that when he returned to his practice, he came face to face with an existential crisis. Should he continue operating the business he had spent years building in the Gettysburg area—or should he risk everything and pursue his dream of becoming a full-time artist?

White Man's Bonnet, oil, 30 x 40.

“I had a burning desire to pursue art, but I was really having a hard time making a decision,” recalls Fawcett. “One day I was talking to my stepfather, who was a physician, and he asked, ‘When you do art, do you think about veterinary medicine?’ I said no. Then he asked, ‘When you do surgery, do you think about art?’ I said, ‘Yes, all the time.’” Today, Fawcett views that moment as an epiphany: “I needed an objective view. I was thinking too much about my career, my life, and worrying if I was being silly.”

In fact, the path of Fawcett’s life seems more inevitable than silly. He was born in Cedar Rapids, IA. “I started drawing at an early age,” he remembers. “I would just lose myself in drawing and learning about any kind of art.” Although his family lived in town, they kept horses, and he had friends who also had horses. “We would get together and play cowboys,” notes the artist. “We had some wonderful places to ride out in the fields—it was a great childhood.”

Eventually, Fawcett’s father told his son that if the youth saved up enough money, he would contribute half of the cost to buy a horse. That first horse—a quarter horse—was a mare named Copper, and you can still hear the fondness in Fawcett’s voice when he mentions her. “We always had dogs, too,” he adds. “I was the animal person in the family.”

One of his boyhood riding friends had a father who was an artist. “He was a big influence on me,” says Fawcett. “I’d go to my friend’s house and peek into his dad’s studio to see what he was working on.” Still, despite his youthful affection for drawing, Fawcett took no art classes in school. “I never considered it a profession,” he admits, “but I was always doing art on the side. I thought of it as a hobby.”

After high school graduation, Fawcett pursued a degree in pre-veterinary sciences at the University of New Hampshire and then received a doctorate in veterinary medicine from Iowa State University in 1978. His love for animals had come to professional fruition. But even during his busy undergraduate and graduate days, he was still doing art. “I continued drawing and painting on the side,” he says. “My art consisted mostly of drawing caricatures of professors and people in my classes.”

Upon graduating from Iowa State, Fawcett received a promising job offer in the Gettysburg area. “I did my internship there and decided to stay,” he comments. “After a year and a half of working for someone else, I opened my own practice in 1980.” In 1992, the year after Fawcett saw the life-changing Mountain Oyster exhibit, he was invited to show in a gallery in Tucson. “Galleries began to clamor for more work,” he recalls. “I was running my practice during the day and painting at night and on weekends.” By 1996, he finally accepted the fact that his second calling—his desire to paint western art—had become his first.

Home Is Where My Horse Is, watercolor, 15 x 19.

Fawcett began his professional art career working mostly in watercolor. “At that time, I was simply more familiar with the medium and the materials,” he says. “So I did what I knew.” Although he would eventually add oils to his repertoire, his subject matter never varied. “You paint what you know best and have a passion for,” he insists, “and I was passionate about western art.” The origins of this predilection can be found in his childhood. “My family used to vacation a lot in the West,” he explains. “We’d often drive to Colorado from Iowa. I was just drawn to Colorado—the mountains, the smells.”

Fawcett cites a number of artists as influences on his style, but he holds a special fondness for those who also worked in both watercolor and oil: “I like Sargent, Winslow Homer, and Anders Zorn and the narratives they evoke,” he says. In terms of the western art scene, he mentions Don Crowley and Howard Terpning as “wonderful painters who know how to tell a story.” Like most artists who have lived in Pennsylvania, he also admires the Wyeths. “They were an important influence, especially Andrew’s use of watercolors,” he confirms. “He used a limited palette but painted what he knew best—the everyday scenes around him. It’s an important element in his work, that commonness that everyone can relate to.”

This strong narrative sense surfaces in most of Fawcett’s own work. Each painting depicts a story in progress and figures that convey much more than mere time and place in their authenticity: a cowboy and his horse pausing by a creek, a Native American woman fetching a pail of water, a warrior painting his horse. On this front, he nods to the glorious illustrations of N.C. Wyeth as an important inspiration: “I grew up with all those classic books he illustrated. My brother would read the books, and I would look at the pictures!”

Drawing on his background in veterinary science, Fawcett also continues to produce equine art. He recently completed a commission for a painting of the late Barbaro, the horse that won the 2006 Kentucky Derby. “Horses are magnificent animals, a study in both physiology and anatomy,” he comments. “Their structure is wild—1,000 to 1,200 pounds resting on four hooves that are about six inches in diameter.” Fawcett says that he never fails to see his veterinary background come into play: “At shows and galleries, a lot of people say that they’re glad I do horses correctly. These people can look at a painting and tell instantly if something is not right.”

Explaining his process, he says that he begins both watercolors and oils with a drawing to determine a basic composition, but that he then “progresses in a specific way determined by each medium.” In his watercolors, he layers his washes, getting thicker in pigment with each additional wash. “In oils, I block a scene in burnt sienna tones.” Like many oil painters, he works in his colors from darks to lights.

Blessing of the Ponies, oil, 30 x 40.

In his oil BLESSING OF THE PONIES, a Cheyenne medicine man blesses some prized ponies by burning a sweet-grass or sage smudge in a buffalo horn. “He’s singing and wafting smoke with an eagle fan for cleansing over the horse and rider,” points out Fawcett, “giving them spiritual powers and guidance for a successful hunt or battle.” In the composition, the artist has created a solemn tableau in which the animals are as important as the figures—and their eyes and the angles of their heads compel the viewer further into the picture, toward the ceremonial smoke.

In the warm tones of TIME TO REFLECT, Fawcett captures a friend resting with his horses by a creek. “The creek is Willow Creek,” he says, “which runs right through our ranch in Colorado.” In this surprisingly dense watercolor, the painter employs a great deal of pigment, especially in the horses and grasses. “There’s a narrative here, too,” adds Fawcett. “The cowboy has ridden all day and he’s coming home. The horses are tired. It’s the relaxation after a long ride.” Chromatically, the painting also conveys this sense of calm in the interplay between the horse’s orangey tones and the tranquil blues of the water—every bit as reflective as the rider’s state of mind.

Today Fawcett and his wife Elizabeth—and their beloved horses—split their time evenly between a home in Pennsylvania and one in Colorado. “In Colorado, the studio is in my home,” he says. “In Pennsylvania, my 1,800-square-foot studio is separate from the house in an Amish-built, timber-frame barn.” He refers to Elizabeth, whom he met in college, as “my critic, my business manager, and my confidant.” The dual settings of their lives reflect the dual nature of the artist’s lifelong interests in horses and art—interests that have finally merged into joyous success.

InSight Gallery, Fredericksburg, TX; Settlers West Galleries, Tucson, AZ; Legacy Gallery, Jackson, WY, and Scottsdale, AZ; Wildhorse Gallery, Steamboat Springs, CO;

Upcoming Shows

Group show, Settlers West Galleries, May 7.
Two-man show, Eichelberger Arts Center, Hanover, PA, June 4.
Western Visions, National Museum of Wildlife Art, Jackson, WY, September.
Quest for the West, Eiteljorg Museum, Indianapolis, IN, September 11-October 9.
Buffalo Bill Art Show & Sale, Cody, WY, September 23-24.

Featured in April 2011.