Pure Joy. Photography: Courtesy Phil Beck Fine Art.
Pure Joy. Photography: Courtesy Phil Beck Fine Art.

From L.A. to Chicago to Arizona, this illustrator has traveled west of the Mississippi to find his voice and art.

As a young studio commercial illustrator in Chicago, Phil Beck never imagined his art would take him anywhere beyond drawing television story boards for fast food restaurants and popular shampoos. Lucky for Western art lovers, fate nabbed the blooming artist — a “city boy” by his own admission — and launched him into a world of cowboys, Indians, cattle, and the Wild West. “The only wildlife I knew was rats running around the subway,” Beck recalls with a hearty chuckle.

A native of Los Angeles, Beck moved with his family to the Windy City when he was still a child. He attended parochial high school, where he learned “more religion than art” but had such a natural talent that everyone who knew him insisted, “Phil’s going to be an artist.” (The only exception was his grandmother, who thought he would be a priest. He let her think that until she died.) Beck went right from high school into commercial art without the usual formal training. “I spent many a night in Chicago smelling the buses below, and I think of those days now — it was a great time. I didn’t have a lot of art-school training, so I was lucky to get my training just watching these professional illustrators work. I was like a sponge in my early 20s learning from watching them. I probably learned more in a week watching those guys work than I learned in the year and a half I was in art school.”

The year and a half in art school took place at the American Academy of Fine Arts in Chicago in 1972. At age 29, tired of the icy winters, Beck drove away from the frigid Midwest and back to California to resume the warm coastal life he had been accustomed to some 20 years prior — at least that was the plan. On the way, he stopped for the night in Scottsdale, Arizona. What he saw was exhilarating: art galleries, art shows, street shows where artists could show and sell their work. “I never thought in a million years I could make a living doing fine art; it really opened my eyes!” He made it to L.A. but stayed for only six months, then headed back to Arizona, where he has lived and worked since with his artist wife, Marty. In addition to painting, the Becks team-taught workshops for 22 years at the prestigious Scottsdale Artists’ School.

Prior to the 2008 recession, Beck considered himself a “figurative artist,” painting Native American children, fur-trading mountain men, and shamans, but since has been concentrating on cattle, mostly Hereford calves. “You don’t see many Herefords anymore; it’s mostly Black Angus now. As a child, I was greatly influenced by TV shows with Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and the cowboys of the 1950s. I’ve never forgotten that. They were all Hereford cattle then, and I think those are the cutest calves. I love the way the sunlight shines on their reddish-brown and white fur.”

One of the things Phil and Marty Beck love most about their work is the relationships they have developed with the people they’ve met while traveling the Southwest in their RV. Local ranchers have extended an open invitation for the nomadic artists to visit during calving season. It’s on these ranches that Beck receives his inspiration. The artist loads his brushes and paints in his RV studio every morning and by the end of the day has magically turned his canvas into a living, breathing calf.

After he recently posted one of those paintings online, a lady wrote, “You do Herefords so well; they must be a breed very close to your heart.” Close to his heart, indeed. Cows have provided his “living” in more ways than one: A few years ago, Beck underwent a critical heart operation to replace a faulty aortic valve with a bovine valve. “That cow gave me a second chance at life,” he says, laughing at the idea of being semiretired. “I’ll be retired when I die and they put on the tombstone ‘Finally retired.’ ”

Visit Phil Beck Fine Art online.

From the October 2016 issue.