The Cowboy Artists of America cofounder's legacy lives on at the Arizona museum that bears his name.
George Phippen at work in the cabin studio he built himself in Prescott, Arizona.
Photography courtesy Phippen Museum
In 1974, a committed group of friends and family along with a dedicated group of art enthusiasts established the George Phippen Memorial Foundation. That same year, they held the first Phippen Western Art Show and Sale to raise money for the fledgling foundation, featuring some of the finest Western sculptors and painters.
The show, held during Memorial Day weekend, was the foundation’s only source of income for 10 years. Then in 1984, thanks to the generosity and effort of many supporters, the Phippen Foundation opened the Phippen Museum in the spectacular setting of the Granite Dells in Prescott, Arizona.
Now in its 28th year, the Phippen Museum and its programming continue to be guided by a singular mission “to preserve and exhibit museum quality Western art and educate the public about the unique heritage, history, legends, and influence of art of the American West.” The 38th annual Western Art Show and Sale will take place Memorial Day weekend in historic downtown Prescott.
Cowboys & Indians talked to Phippen Museum executive director Kim Villalpando about George Phippen, the highlights of his career, and the museum named after him.
Cowboys & Indians: Tell us about George Phippen’s early life.
Kim Villalpando: Born in 1915, the fifth of nine children, he did not have an economic head start. However, being the son of a sharecropper in St. Mary’s, Kansas, provided lots of experience with horses and cattle as well as inspiration from some of the old-timers.
He spent more than enough time plowing fields to realize that riding a horse for a living was preferable to walking behind one.
His ability — no, his drive — to create drawings and sculptures showed up early in life as he modeled livestock out of creek-bank clay and filled entire chalkboards in the one-room schoolhouse with Western scenes.
As the Depression era hit in the early 1930s, George “quituated” school before the eighth grade and took any local livestock jobs he could find. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) offered a better deal, and in 1933 he worked in Minnesota to extinguish peat bog fires. All through his CCC years he made sketches and gave them to friends.
C&I: How did he get from the Midwest to Arizona, the state he is most identified with?
Villalpando: By way of Washington, actually. In 1936 he took advantage of a CCC opening for erosion control in Walla Walla, Washington. He was moving West! His horizons were greatly expanded as he met his future wife and was adopted into her extended family. In 1940 he journeyed to Tucson [Arizona] at the invitation of Hurlstone Fairchild, a landscape artist who lived there. This would be George’s chance to pursue his dream of becoming a cowboy artist.
C&I: But World War II interrupted his plans ...
Villalpando: Yes. The bombing of Pearl Harbor and the start of World War II resulted in his being drafted. The dream would have to wait. George negotiated with the draft board to be inducted in Washington state, where he married his 16-year-old sweetheart, Louise Goble. Three weeks later he was in basic training and then was assigned as a photographer and cartographer for Coast Artillery at Fort Worden north of Seattle. He took advantage of this time and became familiar with photographic and drafting equipment. George also provided illustrations to the Army’s Yank magazine, though his desire to be a combat artist went unfulfilled. The war ended and George once again headed to the Southwest, this time with a wife and two boys.
C&I: How did George manage to get back to his dream and go from serving in the military to pursuing art with a family to take care of?
Villalpando: George and Louise had an agreement that as long as they had a one-month supply of food in the cupboard he would make art his sole career. His pursuit of opportunities led them through Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, but the young Phippen family found Prescott to be the best place. During these four years he had a few months of instruction in color technique from Henry Balink in Santa Fe [New Mexico] and signed an exclusive contract with the Allen Galleries in Houston for his oil paintings. To supplement the small income and put food on the table, he illustrated cards and stationery for Babcock & Borough of Albuquerque [New Mexico]; he also illustrated stories printed in wildlife and horse magazines.
C&I: How was he evolving artistically?
Villalpando: Illustrating real-life situations required him to research the facts and pay close attention to detail. Throughout his career the compliments he appreciated the most came from those who knew the details and said he got it right. George also developed the ability to capture just the right moment in a story with crisp action and a perspective that would bring a smile to the observer. The years in Prescott saw an explosion in his creativity. During the 1950s his techniques improved; word of his talent spread, opening new opportunities. He continued working with magazine publishers and eventually developed a relationship with Brown & Bigelow, the world’s largest calendar company.
C&I: What was happening on the home front?
Villalpando: The family grew to five children, who frequently showed up in their father’s creations. Over the years the children had a burro train through Granite Dells, rode their ponies with saddles made by their dad, competed in rodeos, went on numerous wildlife photo and hunting expeditions, raised calves, milked the family cow. They also cared for bear cubs and wolves from Walt Disney Studios after the animals’ moviemaking days were over. George took advantage of this opportunity to use the bear cubs and wolves as models.
C&I: What occasioned their move to Colorado?
Villalpando: George’s popularity created stress, as he and Louise were quick to entertain frequent drop-in guests who kept him away from the studio. They decided to move to Colorado for a break.
C&I: And then it was back to Arizona for good?
Villalpando: After two years in Colorado they returned in 1961 to the country they loved, where they settled outside of Prescott in the small ranching community of Skull Valley. Here he could continue working with some control since people would call before risking driving 18 miles on a dirt road. George produced many pieces of art depicting the life of a cowboy, and he saw many of his dreams of living the cowboy life come true. He bred and broke horses, competed in roping and cutting, and rode on many roundups and Desert Caballeros trail rides. Although he never owned a cattle ranch, he gained many good friends in the ranching community.
C&I: And he became known for his paintings and bronzes portraying the cowboy life he loved. How did Phippen come to cofound the Cowboy Artists of America?
Villalpando: George often spoke of getting the “Western” artists to band together so they could share publicity, educate the public, and record the life of the cowboy. He was friends with some young, still-unknown artists named Joe Beeler, Charlie Dye, and John Hampton. At that time, Phippen was the most prominent artist among them. They were frustrated that Western art was shunned in most galleries and so, over a few beers at Bird’s Oak Creek Tavern in Sedona [Arizona] in June 1965, they decided to organize a group of artists focused on ranch-life subjects.
They met again in September, joined this time by Fred Harman, father of the Red Ryder comic strip. Officers were chosen, bylaws were drafted, and Joe Beeler designed the now-famous CA [Cowboy Artist] logo. Phippen became the first president of the group called Cowboy Artists of America.
C&I: But Phippen died soon after, at age 50, having only made art professionally for 20 years. What is his legacy?
Villalpando: Unfortunately, George Phippen died of cancer in April 1966 during his first year in CAA office. However, Phippen’s spirit and encouragement, passion, and dedication to Western art live on in all of the Cowboy Artists and in the museum bearing his name. Phippen will be remembered not only for his art, but also for the great sculptors and painters whom he influenced and for the resurgence in the art of lost-wax bronze casting that he inspired. The year 2012 marks the 28th anniversary of the Phippen Museum and honors the artist’s legacy to the world of American Western art.