Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Moving Among Cowboys

     I’ve learned a lot about cowboys in all these years of painting.  Photographing cow work is easy.  Networking into the cowboy lifestyle takes a bit more finesse.  Cowboys are gracious people, but they won’t come find you to take their picture.  (The ones that do aren’t worth painting.) By their very nature, cowboys are at the end of dirt roads, and for good reasons.  Respect that and you’ll do fine.  I’ve been blessed to find fine people that support my efforts.

     Etiquette in the branding pen can differ from ranch to ranch.  Here are a few good rules to follow:  Find a shady corner and disappear.  Don’t stand in gates.  Don’t get caught between the branding pot and workers.  (Dragging a calf around an artist in the way breaks the flow of things.)  The cowboss will dictate etiquette----follow it! 
     All in all, use your common sense and show some respect.  Have back up cameras and good camp gear.  Don’t act like you know it all…. Compared to these guys, you know nothing.  If art happens to come up as a topic, then go for it.  But don’t get caught flatfooted.  I haven’t met a cowboy yet who didn’t have a favorite.  They know their Shooflys, Antons and Owens better than you, so tread lightly.
     Learn to be last at the cook wagon.  The workers have earned their early place in line and the cowboss will let you know who goes and when.  It can be a little awkward, but wait your turn and then wait some more.
     The tough nuts to crack are the ones I’m drawn to.  I can think of a few through the years that kept to themselves, but had a good story to tell, and I was fortunate enough to capture it in paint:  Jake Gould, Ben Kimble, Dave Nelson and the rock that is Cisco Scott.
     I’ll close today with some thoughts on Cisco.  Cisco Scott has been the toughest --- not with malicious intentions or a premeditated agenda --- to win over for this artist.  He fits the definition of “aloof”.  He’s like a cow dog that doesn’t belong to you, and no amount of coaxing or small talk will draw him in.
     Cisco doesn’t care what you think.  He already knows more about life, ranch work, horses, cattle, and pretty much anything else I can think of.
     He doesn’t mind if I photograph, but I instinctively know I better keep my distance.  Before I ever met Cisco, I knew he was going to be a tough one.  My good friend Shawn Goemmer gave me a subtle warning:  “Don’t go jamming a camera in his face.”  That Shawn feels compelled to give this advice says how much respect Cisco commands.  Respect he has earned.
     You can see Cisco is a good man by the pride he takes in gear and code.  His reputation towers among those who have come to work with him.  Cisco allows few to befriend him.  He doesn’t need people or nonsense.  Life’s road is dear to Cisco and an artist is just more white noise.
     For me, it is a great honor to paint him.  He’s been on the O RO Ranch 29+ years* and been cowboss for at least 10.  Sometimes he’ll hand off the position to a new hand, who is less deserving, relieving himself of the burden and pressures.  He doesn’t take orders, not because of ego or pecking order, but because he’s five moves ahead of everybody else.  He knows the ranch, he knows the livestock, and he knows management.  He’s seen all the drama that comes with life on the wagon.  He’s crossed paths with big cats and coyotes and can read weather and trails.  And an artist is still just white noise.

*Cisco retired this year from the cowboy life and over 29 years on the O RO.  His friend Spider summed it up best:  “It really is the end of an era.”

All content and images © Mark Kohler Studio


  1. I can definitely see why these cowboys compel you to paint them. There is something about "respect" that you just can't get past. You HAVE to stop and give them the honor that is due, period. It comes through in your art, one reason I am drawn to it, I think. I can relate to that respect.

  2. They are truly a "special breed", and it is my privilege to give them their proper respect. Thanks for sharing my perception of them.

  3. These fellas are who they are and that comes through loud and clear. They've worked long and hard to earn the respect. There is a sort of honesty about that. I agree with Jeannette, you capture this in all of your work, Mark.

  4. I really like this painting, Mark.

  5. Thanks! After you network and claw your way to find spectacular subjects with a good story, like Cisco, I think, as artists, we are obligated to do a darn good painting. It's the least we can do.