Ridin’ the Fences

I’ve lived in Texas for five years now. Safe to say, no native of the state would remotely consider me a Texan, though. Being a true Texan, I think, is not so much a matter of hometowns and habits as it is something that exists in the ethereal zone where there is an overlap between a spiritual state and an art form.

I don’t begrudge this; I merely stand in awe of it. It’s as intense and intrinsic a form of identity, I gather, as any birthright. I also believe that regardless of where on earth you had your nativity, you either are or aren’t born to be a Texan. Some people born in the state of Texas can take it or leave it, some just need and can’t wait to leave it, period, and can’t take it at all. And as the slogan here goes, there are non-natives who swear that ‘I was born in X, but I got to Texas as fast as I could.’
Digital illustration: Ridin' the FencesKind of the way of all callings, I suppose. Some have a clear sense of destiny or vocation, and some don’t. Some adore what that purpose promises them, some are indifferent, and some will go to the ends of the earth and beyond, if necessary, to escape it as if it were Toxic Doom, Incorporated. We all have our ways of ridin’ the fences.

So if I can’t be a real-live ranch hand no matter how that suits my romantic image of what it ought to mean to be a Texan, at least I’ve found my ways to make living in Texas suit me just fine, for as long as I desire to live here or the Real Texans don’t hogtie me and ship me out of the state in a rickety hay-wagon with a busted axle.

Draw, Podnah!

I’m having some new kinds of fun, y’all. Several of you have inquired about my media and techniques in some of the more recent illustrations and images here, and it’s technology that’s getting me revved up these days. Who knew? I’m so dull-witted in electronic terms and yet here I am having a heyday with my new techie toys.

My dearest bought me a an iPad Air in January. I uploaded a handful of free drawing/art programs right away and have been playing with them all since. It’s fun to see what each offers in terms of virtual tools and media and techniques, how I can use them individually, what can be done by moving an image from one program to another in order to further manipulate it and alter its dependence on the potential of the first program in which it was developed. If that makes sense.

I am a newbie at this stuff. It’s kind of amazing to think that some of the early adopters have been at least beta testing this kind of thing for several decades already; me, I’m nearly always well behind the curve. But I’m having a great time drawing curves and any other thing I can think of at the moment as I get underway and strive to catch up a little.

Certainly one of the aspects of this techno-approach to drawing, painting or whatever one ought to call it is its wonderful malleability. I love that I can not only delete and erase marks without too much fuss and mess with my virtual erasers but also by removing entire layers. Even better is the ability to trade the order and placement of layers, so that I can begin with the top, outlined image and, like a kid with a coloring book, fill in the shapes and blanks with all sorts of color and texture, then move the layers around until I go from the upside-down or inside-out look of such operations to something that is closer to my original intent.

Best of all is that I am finding that digital media are just as serendipitous and cagey as concrete media: I’m just as unlikely to know from the beginning what the end result of my noodling and doodling is going to look like or what the final image(s) will be as I ever was when sitting down with pencil and paper. I don’t expect I’ll give up concrete media either, for that matter, because sometimes one just has to get grubby with silvery-grey graphite dust from elbow to fingertips in order to feel that Art is being made, but it sure does make it fun to gallop around this new frontier of mine with stylus in hand, too.digital illustration

Rancho Retro

digital painting from a photoWhere have all the cowboys gone?

Barely three decades ago, when I first traveled abroad, it wasn’t uncommon to be looked at as quite the curiosity by Europeans on their learning that I lived on the far western edge of the United States. It took me a bit of prying and a double-take or two to discover that some folk outside of North America had no more recent imagery attached to the American West than covered wagons and cowboys rounding up mustangs of a particularly non-automotive sort. I got the impression that a few of these acquaintances were genuinely puzzling over the image of me going to buy dry goods on the bench of a venerable buckboard. No surprise that this didn’t dovetail perfectly with the person standing in front of them sans bonnet and petticoats, so I suppose a little cognitive dissonance was to be expected.

What wasn’t expected was an idea of America that seemed so humorously archaic to me, but then the many years passed and I moved to Texas and discovered that the American West had merely shrunk a bit over the years. Once the tide of non-native migration had swept across the continent and splashed onto the shores of its far coast, the wave seems to have receded gradually and settled back a little farther inland. Where fishermen and foresters could more easily embrace the coastal life, the settlers who intended to keep riding the range with their herds were logically drawn into the vast middle of the country where land was still open enough to be that range. I can attest that I’ve not yet seen the old one-room schoolhouse in Ponder filled with current students, least of all equipped at their desks with inkwells in which to dip each other’s braids, nor do the hands all ride horseback every day anymore: they pile on their ATVs and into their big-axle F150s and go about their business with cellphones glued to their downwind ears.

The venerable and beautiful farmhouses and barns still dotting the highway side of the farms and ranches are largely in a state of slow collapse and empty as a politician’s promises, looking for all the world like Dust Bowl reenactor sets. But if I squint a little and slow down to avoid the road kill as the rest of the world zooms by on I-35, I can see that the ranchers have merely relocated to be farther back on the acreage and have more room for their massive faux-Chateau ranches with mile-high roofs and the barns for their hybrid beef cattle stretching to the invisible horizon beyond. Even the hay bales have grown into giant water tower-sized behemoths that would crush the balers that used to pop out little sugarcubes of hay. Every darn thing is bigger and more commercially driven and faster…and yet, there they are on the ridgeline over there, a couple of leathery guys on paint horses, sauntering toward the gully as they hunt up the boss in his Jeep, who isn’t answering his cellphone because on a 14,000 acre ranch nobody can be bothered to find him to make him do it.

And as briefly as I’ve lived in Texas, I know by now that when the three of them eventually get back to the ranch house, they’ll be putting up their boots, eating brisket that’s been on the smoker since this morning, and washing it down with a cold Lone Star longneck. Some of the cowboys may have traded in their saddles for a four-wheel drive, but some things haven’t changed so all-fired much.

Love, or Something, Conquers All

Is there something else you want to tell me, sir? You say you are a musician, yet I distinctly recall that on evenings around the campfire you’ve always strummed off-key and your songs are always unrecognizable to your fellow players. You tell me that you are a skilled horseman, but I have known you to fall off every mount you ever met and the way you’re always sneezing makes me pretty sure you’re more a specimen of the allergic type than a cowboy of any real sort. As for your claims of being a king of the romantics, they strike me as far more hopeful than strictly factual, considering that you cannot read, write or dance, never remember to comb your hair or wash your face, and are cowed into stammering and foot-shuffling when actually in the presence of anyone even slightly ladylike.

Forgive me, then, if I tend to take your claims with a certain jaded skepticism. I am fairly certain I do not want to listen to you bash away on your two-stringed guitar, to watch you topple out of the saddle the instant your horse makes a move, or to wait for you to wrestle up the courage to make small talk while I dream of my escape from your company. And if you should persist in attempting to convince me that you are the master of the Wild West, I shall be reduced to the expedient of dispatching you with a hefty branch of mesquite laid across your noggin, stuffing you into a handy gunny sack and slinging you over the back of a mule headed toward some terribly remote corner of the prairie.

Other than that, though, I suppose I don’t mind your company. A girl can’t be too choosy out here on the frontier if someone offers her his family fortune and she has her eye on a particular set of acres for ranching. Business is business, after all.digital illustrationOn Closer Examination

A fella whose flaws were prolific

And both manners and taste quite horrific

Filled my soul with alarm

But still had one great charm–

His inheritance, to be specific.

Just Another Tall Tale

I May be Texan 2

I never thought to come to Texas, even for a visit,

But serendipity is not predictable, now, is it?

And if I might not so have planned—don’t have a longhorn cow—

Turns out it was a fine surprise to land here anyhow.

graphite drawing

Does this make me a second-hand cowhand?

Depends on Whom You Ask

What’s happening in any given scene? Everyone who answers the question is sure to have his own answer. Point of view is colored and skewed every which way by one’s position at the moment, by the context of experience, by taste and beliefs. Is this a drama? A comedy? Every actor in the event might well give you a different answer.

The other day when I was hearing a delightfully humorous arrangement of the old western song ‘Blood on the Saddle’ (arranged by Trent Worthington) I couldn’t resist adding a silly illustration of my own to the music. In my sketch, the horse whose saddle has presumably been bloodied stands still enough now to act as a comfortable perch for a vulture that stopped by to survey the fallen cowboy as a potential buffet–though as the vulture has just landed he’s more interested in a short rest first. The horse, now riderless and not forced to buck, has no particular remaining interest in the fellow who until recently expected him to lug around the cowpoke‘s weight and kick his heels in the rodeo arena for a living. The cowboy, now just a flat stain in the dust of the ring, is of no more interest to the horse and little yet to the buzzard (not ripe enough yet, presumably). In fact, when I cropped the cowboy out of the picture altogether, it struck me that the horse and bird looked pretty peacefully contented just lounging around together.graphite drawingSo, whose point of view matters here? The cowboy’s, not so much. Having croaked, he’s now short on both opinions and feelings, so we’ll leave him out of the equation. The bronc, of course, has got to be somewhat relieved at the current situation; while he did participate in the squashing of the aforementioned rider, it’s a pretty safe bet that having the guy pile on his back and goad him to buck was hardly the horse’s idea in the first place, so he can hardly be blamed for, well, bucking the buckaroo off into the dirt. Falling over the fallen fellow, I feel it’s safe to say, wasn’t the horse’s idea either, but just a natural consequence of being thrashed around unwillingly in a dirt arena for someone else’s amusement. Fictional or not, this poor horse deserves a break after all he’s been through.

The buzzard, on the other hand, is just a passing freeloader. Of course, that’s what vultures are designed by nature to be and do: the cleanup crew following food-related disasters. Some days, the sacrificial mammals are less human than in this instance, but regardless of the source, nice dead things are made to be Vulture Chow. And the upshot of the dining experience is that the buzzards will leave the scene a much spiffier one than when they arrived on it. Seems to me that this vulture, too, deserves his moment of happy contemplation and repose before hopping down to dine. I’m guessing, then, that his view of the whole scene is rather–if you’ll pardon the expression–sanguine. Unlikely he’d care how the meal arrived at his ‘table’ so long as it arrived. He sits on his equine throne and surveys what, to a carnivorous bird, is a royal feast indeed.

And what of me, the observer and, partly, inventor of this scenario? How am I to respond to it? I bring my own baggage to the occasion. I’m not a lifelong fan of vintage Western songs, having come to appreciate them as a piece of Americana and folk music culture later in life but still from the remove of something like an anthropological observer. This song itself has had a number of covers from the period-traditional to playful takes like Mr. Worthington’s above-mentioned arrangement, and each iteration adds new aspects to the folklore of the story, tingeing it further with tragedy or humor, history or fiction. The story of a cowboy riding a bucking bronco until thrown and crushed by the horse is swiftly told but can grow and change with each retelling. Do I feel sorry for the cowboy? Insofar as I get involved in the lives, loves and losses of fictional characters (and I do), I will admit his story has its sorrows. It’s arguably a tragedy in the classical sense, since it was through his own choices and actions and the consequences thereof–one could even conceivably see his fall as a direct result of hubris–but death of anything other than comfortable old age still strikes most of us humanoids as just plain sad.

I guess you can tell from my earlier remarks that my sympathies lie more with the horse in this equation. He was put into an untenable situation and responded in true horse fashion to the best of his ability. Too bad for the cowboy that horse logic says the correct response to being strapped into bucking gear is to buck, and that, as hard as you possibly can. The horse in this tale got lucky and knocked that unwelcome irritant off his back. Tough luck for the irritant. It really is all about perspective when it comes to assessing the situation. What it boils down to for me is a recognition that being the cowboy may appear more exciting and impressive, but sometimes it’s better to be the horse.digital image from a graphite drawingWho knows? I might even root for being the buzzard: none of the hassle, all of the free booty. Say, I might be a vulture already! And I’m okay with that. Stop by and find an already made idea for a drawing? Why, sure. I am a shameless scavenger. But I prefer the term ‘artist’, if you please. And all you others are free to agree or disagree, just as you wish.

They Don’t Make Western Movies Like They Used to Make ‘Em . . .



pen & ink

The End.

Those Big Death Scenes in Westerns

The slinger slung his monstrous gun

out of its well-oiled holster

she tried to dart from the couch and run,

but he shot her through the bolster.

She tried to duck his second shot

and they got into a tussle—

it didn’t help her cause a lot:

he shot her in the bustle.

She staggered around; began to totter;

still the gunslinger came

relentlessly on and at last he got her—

right in the final frame.

pen & ink

Even though a cowboy’s socks can pretty much stand up on their own . . .

Something’s Afoot at the Fort

A Texas Ranger lost his boot

And all of us can feel

His pain at losing shaft and spur

And being down-at-heel

Without the custom stitching and

Tooled silver on the toe,

The steel shank inset and the vamp—

Where is a man to go

To get re-shod so perfectly

In style with stuff that wears

Like his cast-iron skillet, by

A boot-maker who cares

As deeply as the Ranger does

For quality and class?

I only hope the Ranger knows

That this pain, too, shall pass,

For down the street the Ponder shop

Has crocodile skin

And hand-tooled leather of all kinds

To tuck his tired hooves in,

And like a human’s farrier,

Will shoe him with perfection

In custom boots as soon as he

Gallops in that direction,

So go on, Texas Ranger, sir,

Get in and order boots

To save your poor hooves from their loss

In any style that suits,

From ostrich up to diamondback,

From white to black as soot,

And classy as a Cadillac

You wear upon your foot

pen & ink

Nothing can compare to the perfect boot . . .

Tetched by Texas

As a Seattle native, moving to Texas two years ago was far less culture shock than I expected. Yes, it’s decidedly a new planet, but hey–it’s a friendly one, dadgummit. We’re in a university town, so it’s got great used bookstores and welcoming watering-holes and a hint of Bohemia around the edges, and while the new terrain is ocean-free here in the north part of the state and the closest I’ll get to mountain hiking nearby will be if I sneak up a water tower to survey the rolling flats, it’s countryside with its own kind of beauty.

Still, having family and friends visit us here is a fine excuse to explore a little of the legendary Texas and larn me some wild-west history along the way. Naturally, I find I’m inclined to play with the yarns of yore in my imagery as well, so I shall present you with a glimpse of the same herewith.

Trick roper & longhorn

Lassoed by the Lone Star