C&I remembers the award-winning painter and sculptor known simply as "The Cowboy's Artist."
Throughout a career that spanned six decades, Bill Owen sought to represent in his paintings and sculptures all aspects of the life of the contemporary cowboy. And while he remained by all accounts a modest fellow who considered himself lucky to make a living by, as he described it, “observing God’s handiwork all the time and trying to capture just a little of that in my work,” he took pleasure in knowing his ambitions and accomplishments earned him the nickname of “The Cowboy’s Artist.”
Owen followed his dream until the very end of his life: He was photographing cowboys at Camp 16, near Peach Springs, Arizona, when he died June 15, 2013, at age 71.
Cowboys & Indians contributor Red Steagall, a close friend of the artist for 35 years, praises Owen’s works as enduring testaments to the cowboy way of life. “His art will forever be an indication of what the cowboy looked like and the work that he did,” says Steagall. “But I think he’d like to be remembered simply as a guy who loved life, who was honest and loyal to his friends. And who constantly strived to be a better artist.”
Owen’s determination was sorely tested when, in May 1989, he suffered what for many artists might have been a career-ending setback: He lost the sight in his right eye as the result of an accident he sustained while practicing team roping for a rodeo.
“When I went back to work,” Owen admitted in an October 2010 interview with C&I, “I experienced great frustration and uncertainty, due to the loss of depth perception. It immediately became obvious to me that I couldn’t sculpt. But I was also unsure of what I was seeing in my drawings and paintings.”
Even so, he refused to waste time on self-pity and never allowed his handicap to impede his artistry.
“My father instilled in me at a very young age that there is no such thing as ‘can’t’ and more importantly, ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way,’ ” Owen said. “The first two years was a time of adjustment, and I had to work hard to build confidence in my abilities. ...
“Thankfully, I’ve learned firsthand that God created the human body in an amazing way; it compensates on its own. I am thankful to have one good eye and that I have been able to continue in the profession I love.”
A native of Gila Bend, Arizona, Owen was born in 1942. His father had lived the cowboy life in the early 1900s, and his mother actively pursued art. “When she passed away at the age of 97,” Owen told C&I in 2010, “she still had a studio in her home and had a painting, in progress, sitting on her easel. She was amazing and the perfect example, proving that when you’re born with talent and a burning desire to utilize it, it doesn’t go away over time.”
Owen began drawing with pastels while he still was in grade school and often would draw on his real-life experiences for artistic inspiration when, years later, he began working as a cowboy on various ranches. He continued to rope and ride long after he made his first gallery sale in the late 1960s.
Indeed, he and his wife, Valerie, owned and operated their own cattle ranch for several years outside Globe, Arizona. At the time of his passing, the couple made their home on a 36-acre spread in Kirkland, Arizona, where they continued to raise cows and horses.
Owen was inducted into the Cowboys Artists of America in 1973 and served three times as the prestigious organization’s president. His works were exhibited in venues as varied as the Grand Palais in Paris, the Western Art Show in Beijing, and the Whitney Museum of Western Art in Cody, Wyoming.
In 1993, Owen received the Frederic Remington Award for Exceptional Artistic Merit, and became a member and staff artist of Rancheros Visitadores. Ten years later, he was the first recipient of the Express Ranches Great American Cowboy Award at the Prix de West invitational show.
Owen leaves behind a multitude of works prized by collectors and exhibited by museums as uniquely imaged and vividly detailed renderings of hardworking cowboys — and their faithful steeds.
Nationally syndicated Country Top 40 radio host Bob Kingsley spoke for many of Owen’s admirers when he eloquently eulogized the artist: “Bill captured the essence and magic of horses and the relationship we have to them better than anyone I’ve known. His art has added value to our home and to our lives, and from now on, every time I walk into our house, I will be a beneficiary of his spirit and his legacy.
“Thank you, Bill, for all you have given me and all of those who knew you.”
From the October 2013 issue.