With a Starbucks, Barnes & Noble and Quiznos seemingly on every corner these days, it’s clear that the East Valley’s connection to its Wild West roots is fading. Which is fair; there is a reason, after all, that we’re not trotting around town in covered wagons.
But there is something about Western art — Old West settings, cowboys and American Indians — that can stir up fond feelings in even the most gentrified city folk.
If you’re a Western art fan, now’s a good time to be living here. Thursday will mark the 17th annual Western ArtWalk in downtown Scottsdale, which is a precursor to the monthlong 41st annual Cowboy Artists of America Exhibition & Sale at the Phoenix Art Museum. Both events heavily involve the previously mentioned Cowboy Artists of America, an invitation-only group of the country’s top Western artists.
The group was started in 1965 in Sedona, with the stated objective, according to its Web site, “to preserve the memory and culture of the Old West.” There are 22 active members.
Harley Brown, who lives in Tucson, was voted in by the group last year and is the newest member.
“It is really an honor that is quite something,” Brown says. “These are some of the very best artists on the planet and there are very few in the organization, so to be elected to join is a rare occurrence.
“This is why I’m rather amazed,” he adds, frankly.
Brown’s humility might be misplaced. The artist, originally from Edmonton, Alberta (which despite being so far north can be just as cowboy as the American Southwest), has published two books, the popular instructional text “Harley Brown’s Eternal Truths for Every Artist” and the autobiographical retrospective “Confessions of a Starving Artist.” He’s had exhibitions all over the U.S. and was commissioned by no less than Ronald Reagan. Still, Brown considers inclusion in the group a career highlight.
“When I first placed the ‘CA’ initials next to my name on a painting, I was both nervous and quite proud,” he tells of the identifying mark used by members. “Writing those two letters is an overwhelming experience.”
This will be Brown’s first year showing his work at the exhibition, but when it comes to cowboy art, this is far from his first rodeo. He says he’s painted pictures of Indians since his youth, and sees many similarities between Alberta and the Southwest.
“The history of cultures between Alberta and the Southwest is quite similar,” he remarks. “The ranches of Alberta are similar to what we see from Montana, Wyoming, Utah, right down through Arizona.”
Naturally, Brown sees the value in preserving the culture and history of the Old West.
“Although we live in modern times, the Old West is a strong part of us,” he says. “With all that is happening in the world, this grounding is real and stable.”
Even though the Western art subjects might often seem similar, Brown says that it’s more diverse than one might think.
“There are so many variations on this theme that it can really go on and on,” he says. “I can look at a painting of a cowboy with the mountains in the background and it can be vibrant and filled with fresh twists and turns.”
The show at the Phoenix Art Museum is a busy time for the CAA. It starts Friday with the sale, which isn’t run like a typical art auction — rather, those looking to purchase a piece submit “intent-to-purchase” slips. The first person randomly drawn has the option to buy the work. The exhibition then occupies the Steele Gallery at the museum for the next month.
Before that is the Western ArtWalk, which many members participate in. Scottsdale’s galleries are open every Thursday evening for the weekly art walk, but a few times each year the Scottsdale art district holds special events like this one. The theme will carry into the entertainment, featuring acts like local country singer Rhonda Towns.
Brown is looking forward to participating as a fullfledged member of one of the art scene’s most exclusive clubs.
“Carol (his wife) and I are going to be involved with as many things as we can do with the events of next week,” he reports. “I’ll be honest, I’m nervous.
“But it’s a good nervousness because I’m with my pals.”
17th annual Western ArtWalk
When: 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday
Where: Along Main Street and Marshall Way in downtown Scottsdale
Information: (480) 990-3939 or www.scottsdalegalleries.com
41st annual Cowboy Artists of America Exhibition & Sale
When: Oct. 21 to Nov. 19
Where: Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 N. Central Ave.
Information: (602) 257-1222 or phxart.org