For this Cowboy Artist of America, the history and the beauty of the American West are hard to beat.
It’s his first day back home on his small ranch outside Clifton, Texas, in the picturesque Meridian Creek Valley after almost three weeks on the road, and Martin Grelle is back to work. Between the last time he was at the easel and now, he’s attended the Prix de West invitational in Oklahoma City, gone on the Cowboy Artists of America Trail Ride in Montana, and vacationed with his wife, Joyce, in some of the beautiful Western country. All along the way, he gathered reference photos for future paintings, some of which are bound for the annual Cowboy Artists of America show in October and a long-awaited one-man show at the Legacy Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona, in November. At the moment, he’s having fun trying to capture the atmosphere and feelings of a warrior as he paints the face of his wife inside their lodge. With many more canvases to go, Grelle took time to talk with C&I about his career and why the West is such a compelling subject.
Cowboys & Indians: A dream came true for you in 1995 when you were invited to become a member of the Cowboy Artists of America. Since then, you’ve served on the board three times and gone on the annual trail ride many times. Tell us about the ride.
Martin Grelle: Depending on where we’re invited to have it, the ride can be held anywhere from April until late June. When we’re on a working ranch in Texas, we’re usually there in April or early May. We have been invited to some of the most beautiful ranches you can imagine, and this year’s ride was no exception. We were in southwest Montana, nestled up against snow-covered peaks and overlooking the Madison River Valley. All the great folks who have hosted the CAA for our annual rides treat us so very well, and we are so thankful for the opportunities to spend time with them in the places they are willing to share with us. During our trail ride, we have a set schedule, which includes a day for setting up camp with our individual cowboy tepees or tents and getting settled in, at least one day of riding, and also a day dedicated to a business meeting with all the attending members. Each night of the ride is spent around a campfire visiting with each other, telling jokes, and listening to those of us who play guitar and sing. It is a time filled with laughter, heartfelt personal statements, and music. It provides the time for all of us individual artists to bond together as one, and is the glue that holds the organization together.
C&I: What got you pointed down the artist road?
Grelle: In junior high and early high school, I did several pencil drawings and a few oil paintings. I entered a couple of things in the fair here in Clifton and won a ribbon or two, but later on a girl I was dating picked up several pieces from my mom and took them to the Heart O’ Texas Fair in Waco. Out of the blue I received a call that I was needed in Waco so the newspaper could take a photo of me with my winning works. I had no idea what they were talking about! I had won several blue and red ribbons, and the tricolor ribbon for the best work. I still have those ribbons and the newspaper clipping!
C&I: What else early on helped you pursue art?
Grelle: While I was still in high school, two professional artists who [were] members of the Cowboy Artists of America moved to the Clifton area: James Boren and Melvin Warren. I first met Jim by happenstance, and then later at a National Honor Society meeting at which he was the guest speaker. I approached him and told him I liked to draw and paint and he asked me to bring something out to show him sometime. It took me a while to get up the courage, but I eventually did. He became my mentor and helped me tremendously; he and his wonderful wife, Mary Ellen, also became my dear friends. His association with the CAA also planted my dream of becoming a member of that organization someday.
Another thing that had a direct influence on my becoming a professional artist was a successful one-man show, my first, held for me by a local gallery and frame-shop owner, Joan Spieler. She had framed a few pieces for me, and then sold a couple of drawings for me, and was very frank with me about what she saw in my work. She asked me to commit to a one-man show, and it came about around a year after I graduated from high school. It was the first of many one-man shows that I have painted over the course of my career and one I will never forget.
C&I: Western Art Collector described your works as “some of the most sought-after pieces by living Western artists.” What about the West keeps you engaged as a painter?
Grelle: For me, the history and the beauty of the American West are hard to beat. I have traveled for years through the landscapes of the western United States, and it never gets old seeing the many and varied terrains that part of the country holds. I love painting it. Whether I am portraying the working cowboy in a dusty Texas environment, or Native peoples passing through the grand mountain ranges of the Northwest or hunting out on the plains, or trappers wading into cold waters hoping to catch beaver to trade, it all holds a romance and beauty for me. I have focused primarily on portraying Native Americans of the nineteenth century for the past twenty-five-plus years, and I hope that I do them honor in the process. I am drawn to the colorful aspects of that time period, and, although I am fully aware of the brutal parts of that historical era and the incredible difficulties life held for them on a daily basis, and the conflicts with both the “whites” coming into their lands and with each other, I try to focus on capturing more peaceful moments. However, I do include in certain works subtle statements that reveal hardships and conflicts that have occurred, which I often leave to the viewer to discover.
C&I: Any particularly favorite location to paint?
Grelle: My favorite place is probably Grand Teton National Park, which will come as a surprise to no one! I have done a number of paintings from that area, many of which don’t even show the mountain range. There is something simply magical about that area, and I never get tired of trying to capture it. Of course, I have painted many other areas of the West, and they all hold their own special beauty. It’s my challenge to try to portray that beauty effectively.
C&I: What’s your advice to young painters of the Western genre?
Grelle: The same good advice I was given: Learn to draw, try to paint outdoors or from life as often as possible, and paint what excites you the most so that you can paint it your best. On top of that, seek the best references you can get and educate yourself about your subjects.
C&I: What do you consider the source of your creativity?
Grelle: I believe that God placed the creativity within me. I believe that the creativity I witnessed in my family as I grew up furthered it. I believe that the creativity I have seen in other artists has furthered it even more, and I hope that I can use the creativity I have to inspire and bring beauty to those who see what I put on canvas and paper.
Martin Grelle’s work will be on view October 5 – November 26 at the 52nd Annual CAA Sale & Exhibition during Cowboy Crossings at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City and at his one-man show November 11 at the Legacy Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona. cowboyartistsofamerica.com
From the October 2017 issue.