Lately, I’ve been carrying around a couple of cowboys in my car. One of them is riding a bay horse and leading a buckskin against the backdrop of the Southwest sky. The other one is moving a small herd of Hereford cattle across a stream, cigarette dangling from his mouth. A real Marlboro man. They’re not real cowboys of course—they are the subjects of two large oil paintings by Western artist Karin Hollebeke that belong to my father. The Marlboro man was painted in 1973—by then he should have known better, but depicting smokers in art and film was not as “non-PC” as it is now. The two paintings have been riding around in the back of the old Suburban for about a week now—they don’t fit in my father’s new place, and I am not quite ready to admit that I love them. My walls are decorated with Victorian etchings of dogs and children and beautiful women in flowing dresses holding parasols and looking wistfully over their shoulders. I must have been quite the Victorian lady in my past life.
Art collecting seems to run in my family. My paternal grandfather bought an oil painting by a British artist back in the 1920’s that hangs in my hallway now. When my father did his stint in the Navy just after World War II, others may have had a girl in every port, but from the looks of his collection he spent most of his shore time buying paintings—oil paintings of Italian street scenes and water colors of Venice and Rome. He says that the artists would line up their canvasses like ducks in a row, and move from painting to painting, one color palette at a time—first the water, then the boats, then the people, then the sky. Then they would sell them to the sailors, five dollars a piece, and my Dad, arms laden with freshly painted treasures, would carry them halfway across the world, and more recently halfway across the country. These paintings from the post war years, with their boats and colors and eager roustabouts are a reminder of a Europe recovering from the wreckage.
When our family moved to Texas, the art and artists of the old West, real or imagined, became the focus of Dad’s acquisitive instincts. The canvasses were as big as the state we were living in, and Comanche’s in full war paint shared wall space with winter clad cowboys shooting wolves from the back of their saddles, and stagecoaches paused briefly to rest under mining city gas lamps before moving on to their destinations. Hill country scenes ripe with bluebonnets bloomed in the bedrooms, and over the fireplaces. These big ornately framed oils are the cargo my friend and I carried back to San Diego two weeks ago.
I used to make fun of Dad’s cowboys and Indians, spectacular though they were—especially during my Boston years when I strolled Newbury Street like a new sophisticate and bought colorful abstract lithographs and framed black and white posters from important art exhibits. But then, one day nearly twenty years ago, lightning struck. I was at Wind River Gallery in Colorado and in front of me was a magnificent bronze, aptly named Tatonka, by an artist named Buck Mahaney. A bison bull, in full flight, had leapt into the air as an Indian brave on his buffalo pony bore down on him, his legs clenched tightly around the horse as he drew his bow and arrow and took aim at the animal’s heart. In Native American lore, the animal must agree to give up his spirit to the sky and his body to the hunter and the bull’s leap symbolized his spirit that was leaving the earth, at that last moment between life and death. I was smitten, and the proprietor recognized that the only way to get me out of his gallery was to agree to take payments. A year later, the bronze was mine.
I am giving in to the Western Art gene, and my older son seems to have inherited it. A couple of years ago he strolled casually through the house, running his hand over the bronze, and he said, “When you die, I want THIS!” I said, “I’m not dead yet.” But when I go, I suspect that my Dad’s art, Tatonka, and the cowboys in the back of the Suburban will find a good home with the kid, now grown up and working for the State Department who wore his boots and Stetson in his high school graduation photo. Even if they have to travel half way around the world.