It’s a rare person who knows what they want out of life at a young age and never looks back. Tim Cox is one of the few. Having drawn since he could hold a pencil, the acclaimed Western artist was a working cowboy and already selling Western paintings years before high school. And he married his one and only sweetheart at the tender age of 17.
Nearly 45 years and almost 500 paintings later, Tim and Suzie Cox are still living the dream at their home outside Bloomfield, New Mexico, where Tim raises horses and paints. “It’s just part of me. It’s who I am and what I do,” he says of his art. “If I didn’t get paid for it, I’d still be doing it.”
His first canvas was a paper sack on the easel of his mother’s kitchen floor, where the 5-year-old drew bull riders, bucking horses, and Western scenes. His talent was obvious in kindergarten. “My teacher called my mom and dad in, and I thought I was in trouble,” he remembers. “She just wanted to tell them they needed to get me art lessons.”
Cox must have been a local sensation in the small town of Duncan, Arizona, where his schools nurtured his artistic gift as best they could. By eighth grade, two teachers were even buying his paintings. “They gave me $5, and being in the eighth grade, I thought that was pretty good! Then the kids started buying ’em. And my dad started selling ’em at work.”
In the meantime, Cox discovered another passion: horses. “I’m a horse addict,” he confesses, and today he owns about 20 at any given time. “If I have any weakness, it’s horses.”
He was a good enough hand by age 8 that a rancher neighbor hired him for a dollar a day to help with roundups and brandings. “They gave us a piece of country, and we’d just ride with them and help gather.”
At home he’d spend hours looking at the Western art in Arizona Highways, the magazine his dad brought home from his highway department job. Tim’s father, whose family had a ranching history, encouraged him. “That ranch I worked on didn’t keep any of the mares,” Cox says. “My dad talked them into giving me a filly. So when I was about 10 years old, I broke my first horse. I had her to ride for years.”
The ranch cowboys were fans of his art and posted the pictures on the barn wall. “A lot of them still have them today,” Cox says. “They’re kind of embarrassing to see, but it made me proud that they liked them.”
The young realist painter had no interest in the modern art favored by colleges and turned down several scholarship offers. But fate would provide him with better teachers. After marrying, Tim and Suzie were taking care of horses at her parents’ place when Cowboy Artists of America sculptor Grant Speed stopped at a neighbor’s to buy a horse. Hearing there was an artist next door, Speed dropped by to see Cox’s work and ended up inviting him to the upcoming Cowboy Artists of America show in Phoenix. An introduction to the folks at Trailside Galleries in Scottsdale, Arizona, soon followed, where Candice Bedner was an instant fan. “She took me right in as a gallery artist,” Cox says. “I didn’t know what a big deal it was at the time. She became a very close person in my life and helped me with my career tremendously.” Tim and Suzie became so close to Bedner, who had no children of her own, that when she died in 2004, the obituary called the couple her “near-son and daughter-in-law.”
Cox met other mentors that included some of the biggest names in Western art, like John Clymer and Gordon Snidow. Snidow invited Cox to spend a summer painting at his Ruidoso, New Mexico, guesthouse, where the master would offer daily critiques of his protégé’s work.
Despite the early success, there were lean years. For a time, Cox painted at night while spending his days cowboying on a remote Arizona ranch. When he finished a painting, he’d drive to Trailside Galleries, stopping first in Sedona, Arizona, to see famed Western artist Jim Reynolds. “Jim Reynolds would critique it,” Cox says. “And I always took my paint and brushes so I could work on it if I needed to.”
Reynolds’ style was looser and more impressionistic. “But he told me, if you’re gonna be a realist painter, be the best realist painter you can be,” Cox recalls. “Right before he died, he emailed me and asked me if I remembered that. I said yes, and he said, ‘Well, I’ll be damned if you didn’t just about become it.’ ”
The memory makes Cox chuckle. “He wouldn’t give me the whole deal — he said ‘just about’ — but it was nice to get the email from him.”
Today, Cox’s paintings are so popular it can be a challenge to buy an original. His new works portraying the present-day cowboy and ranch life are rarely in galleries and quickly snapped up at shows like the prestigious Prix de West in Oklahoma City. Cox won the show’s top honor in 2003, one of many awards over the years. And he achieved his lifelong dream of becoming a member of the Cowboy Artists of America in 2007.
His spot-on paintings of horses, dramatic Western skies, and ranch scenes are clearly the work of someone who lives the life. “A lot of the collectors say they just like to sit down with a glass of wine and transpose themselves into the painting and feel like they’re there,” he says. Indeed, sitting in front of a Cox, you feel like you can almost smell the sage.
He still saddles up spring and fall to visit working ranches to get recharged and re-inspired, before disappearing into his studio, where he often paints for 16 hours a day, seven days a week. “I get so lost in it when I’m doing it, I can’t think of much else,” Cox says. “It’s just part of who I am.”
Images courtesy the artist (Header image: Moving the Mares)
From our July 2020 issue.