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July 01, 2008

Not just for cowboys: Western art

Western art bucking its wild west image and roping in a wider audience

L. Sara Bysterveld

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With Stampede in town, everyone has cowboys, pick-up trucks and bucking broncos on the bain. But in their house? Maybe not.

There is an idea that western (read: cowboy) art only belongs in log cabins or oil executives’ mansions, however, this is a myth. The truth is western art, like any genre, can fit in with any decor, and there are art pieces out there to fit any budget.

“Sometimes the greatest impact happens when you have a contrast between the art and the rest of your home,” says Robert E. Wood of Gainsborough Galleries. “A lot of condos are not typically Wild West kind of places, but that is where you can really get an interesting effect by putting in something bold that contrasts.”

The term western art holds different meaning for different people. To some, it is art by westerners. To others, it is any piece that includes a cowboy, horse, cow, Native American, or similar scene. And to yet others, it includes one or both of the former definitions along with western landscapes or art composed of multi-media derived from the West (oil from the tar sands, old farm equipment, oxblood, and so on).

“Is the term western art really needed anymore? Do we need to put a label on it?” muses John Webster, owner of Webster Galleries. He believes that western art may be a painting of a cowboy created by an artist from Quebec, or a landscape done by someone who grew up on a ranch. To Webster, the term can encompass a lot, depending on how you look at it.

The lines are a bit blurry, but whatever the definition of western art, the same rule holds true: buy what you love to look at.

“Unless you have a vehement hatred of all things western, your mind can be opened,” says Wood. “Come in with an open mind and you’ll find something you’ll love for the rest of your life—whatever you have in your home should be what you enjoy looking at.”

He tells of one woman who wanted a specific Harold Lyon painting so badly, but could not find a spot for it in her home, that she went so far as to take down her bureau mirror and replace it with the piece.
Webster explains that some buyers are drawn to it because they are third- or fourth-generation Albertans and the imagery brings back memories of their own youth and experience of the West.

A good place to get a feel for the genre, in the widest sense, is the Calgary Stampede Western Art Show, which runs for the duration of the Stampede. The show, in its 27th year, is comprised of five sections: sales booths with artists in attendance, an auction for which pieces are displayed throughout the show (this year there are 78 pieces in the auction), a gallery in which ten to 12 artists have eight to ten pieces each on display, and a section featuring artisans such as silversmiths, wood carvers and jewelry makers, as well as a photo gallery.

The definition of western art here is fairly encompassing. As Georgia Desmarais, chair of the show’s sales salon explains, pieces in the stampede show incorporate a wide variety of media and genres, but the overall basis is western, with 80 per cent western work.

“There’s something for everybody,” she says. “It doesn’t necessarily have to incorporate a horse or a cow, there is even abstract work.” Show-goers will find paintings ranging from landscapes and mountain scenes to ranch life and wildlife, as well as the considerable range of sculptures and other work by artisans.

“Western art fits into an eclectic art collection—there is something for everyone,” she adds, echoing Wood’s assurance.

Year-round, Calgarians as well as visitors to the city can find western art in a number of Calgary galleries. Gainsborough Galleries features paintings by Harold Lyon, Richard Freeman and Jack King, as well as sculptures by Linda Stewart, Vilem Zach and C.R. Cheek, to name just a few. At Webster Galleries, sculptors Don Toney and Patrick Keenan, and painters Ron Zdirluk and Carl Shinkaruk are represented. Down the street at Artists of the World, pieces range from very affordable prints by artists like Doug Levitt, Keith Walker and Paul Van Ginkel to paintings and large sculptures by Vilem Zach. Something a bit different can be found at Wallace Galleries, where modern, multi-media pieces by Andre Petterson feature black and white photos of horses with dripping gesso and smudges of oil pastel to create a very striking effect.

“A lot of people who like western art tend to like (Petterson’s) art because it kind of bridges the gap between western and modern art, being so modern but with the horses,” says Colette Hubner of Wallace Galleries.
Other places to check for great pieces of western art include the Masters Gallery and Canada House in Banff, as well as contacting artists directly.

One such artist who creates his art right here in Calgary and represents himself out of his home is Paul Van Ginkel, creator of the 2007 Calgary Stampede promotional poster. A Calgarian since the age of 13 (after relocating from Winnipeg), Van Ginkel has remained fascinated by horses, Natives and cowboys as subject matter in his 18-year painting career. “The western genre remains in my blood—I guess I always wanted to be a cowboy,” he says.

Van Ginkel takes inspiration from his custom-designed and built home in west Calgary, in which he creates and shows his art. The house showcases a large collection of furniture, interior finishes and art that he and his wife, Kristin handpicked in Mexico, and his studio’s soaring 22-foot-ceiling boasts a nearly-180-degree, unobstructed view of the Rocky Mountains.

Van Ginkel reports that the art-buying climate in Calgary is strong, and suggests this is because there is an abundance of money in the city, and that is often spent on luxury items such as fine art.

Apparently the climate for buying western art is strong in general, with New York auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s ringing up record sales of western art in May. Notably, an 1878 Thomas Moran landscape took triple what had been estimated, at $17.7 million.

Wood, however, points out this may have more to do with deceased artists than the specific genre. He encourages art collectors who have the money to spend to buy pieces by living artists. “Rather than only buying art by deceased artists for the prestige factor, buy the work of living artists who are here to appreciate the sales of their art. You can find fantastic art by artists who are still around.” 

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