Friday, September 14, 2012

The Cowboy Artist

Book Cover
When we were just children, my sister Grace and I were walking down a sidewalk and looked through the window of an artist's studio. The studio sat right next to the walk, with a large picture window. Inside, next to that big window, an artist had set up his easel. His back was mostly to the window, leaving his work in progress in clear view. This gave him both good light and good advertising.

My sister and I stopped and watched in awe. We had never seen an artist at work, bringing a landscape and animals into life. I was probably six or seven years old, Grace three years older than I. We were awestruck. In my memory, the painting was a prairie scene with pronghorn antelope. I thought it was wonderful, and was shocked when the artist suddenly took a rag and wiped one of the antelope off the canvas. To my juvenile eyes that antelope was perfect! What was he doing, ruining his picture! Of course, the artist went back to painting, and Grace and I went on our way.

Since that time, whenever this bit of memory surfaces (and it was a powerful enough experience that it really planted itself in my mind), I've wondered who the artist was, where he was from, and what he was doing in our little town.

Now I know.

Last night Grace and I attended a presentation at the Rockpile Museum. Featured were paintings by cowboy artist Jake W. Benson. One of his granddaughters and one of his great-grandsons spoke about their search to learn about their artist ancestor. His granddaughter, Doris Mitchell, grew up in Minnesota, in a home that contained a number of her grandfather's paintings. She met her grandfather a few times, but knew very little about his life in Wyoming.

When she did finally visit Wyoming a few years ago, she started discovering paintings by J.W. Benson everywhere. He painted not only pictures to hang on a wall, but signs for businesses and ranches and murals in cafes, bars, and hotels. Some of these murals are still in place in businesses around northeastern Wyoming. Some have been lost to remodeling or destruction of the buildings. Everywhere Doris went she discovered people with stories about her grandfather or with pictures he had painted. Some pictures have survived only in photographs. As a great bonus, Doris also discovered cousins still living in this area where J.W. Benson grew up, lived, cowboyed, and painted. They had more paintings and stories about their relative.

And he did have studios in our town--and right where Grace and I remember seeing the artist at work!

 Postcard reproduction of Benson's painting titled "Captured."

Doris had inherited a box of postcards that her grandfather had printed as a way to earn money. These postcards, as black and white copies, show both known paintings and paintings whose locations have been lost. Since sitting in a box in a closet defeats the purpose of art, Doris had prepared packets of the postcards that were sold at the showing.

The search for information about her grandfather and his work, and her new association with the Rockpile Museum, led Doris to write a book about her grandfather, which includes photos of the paintings she has located. Since the book was printed she has learned where 19 more are. There may be hundreds more out there.  (Sales of her book profits are going to the local Historical Society.)

J.W. Benson was self-taught and his paintings are classified as primitives by some. Some (perhaps many) of his paintings show his strong sense of humor. His was not an easy life--he was put out to work and earn his own way by the age of ten. But he was driven to paint and eventually found a way to earn a living at it.

It was a very enjoyable evening at the museum--and now I know the rest of the story about the artist who transfixed me when I was a little girl.

[And my sister Grace grew up to become a very accomplished artist herself.]


  1. Oh, what a cool story! Do you suppose that experience was somewhere in the back of Mom's mind as she grew up, encouraging her to pick up a paintbrush as well?

  2. Thank you so much I really enjoy everytime I come across a JW benson painting .... I just bought some fantastic postcards at the museum in ft Pierre yesterday ....looking forward to getting the book! Thanks

  3. This was a great article. I just found a postcard by J.W. Benson and was researching him. My maiden name was Benson so I had two reasons to look him up! The postcard I found was "Goodbye Saddle"

  4. I bought 4 of J.W.Benson's prints at Goodwill in Belfast, Maine. The print is called "Fort on the River". It is 25" by 34". The scene is a river with a fenced in fort, teepees, and covered wagons coming into the fort. Anyone have any comments about my find. Christine