Montana-based artist Tim Joyner draws Western scenes with a humorous twist.
When he was a young boy, Tim Joyner’s parents took him to the annual C.M. Russell Museum auction in his hometown of Great Falls, Montana, and it ignited a creative spark right away. He picked up a pencil and began to draw. “I’d turn in math homework with a picture where the answer should be,” he says. “I wasn’t very good in school. I was kind of the dreamer. I was always sketching — mostly Western stuff, like cowboys and horses.” He’d found a mentor in Charlie Russell (even went to C.M. Russell High School and had a dog named after him). He would also be influenced by Montana artists Monte Dolack and Larry Zabel.
Now, 50 years later, Joyner is still drawing Western-themed scenes, and his work has been auctioned at the same art show that inspired him to become an artist decades ago. Today, just like when he was a boy, his works depict classic scenes of Montana, but with a humorous twist.
A rodeo cowboy lassoing a fish, a cowboy riding a brook trout, a rodeo clown running from a bull trout — these sendups turned into a series called Fish-n-Cowboys. “In Montana, the two biggest, best things we have are fly-fishing and rodeo,” Joyner says. “I thought it would be fun to blend the two disciplines into one painting, and it turned into a whole series. I’m not the first person to have a cowboy riding a fish, but the way it’s depicted in a realistic way with airbrushed backgrounds, it’s different. It was one of my biggest best sellers in Montana.”
If the thought of that makes you laugh, you’ll appreciate his sepia-tone Western Saloon, where a barroom is incongruously filled with real and movie cowboys. Davy Crockett, John Wayne, and Paul Newman and Robert Redford — as Butch and Sundance — are all drinking at the same bar with the cast of Bonanza; there’s even a Lassie lookalike and John “Urban Cowboy” Travolta.
“It’s kind of like painting a Utopia or perfect world,” Joyner says, suggesting his piece The Outlaws as an example. “You’ve got Hank Williams Jr. with his one arm around his daddy, Hank Sr. The singers are both in their prime of life, and if you’re familiar with country music, the lyrics say ‘He’s got one arm around my momma now.’ None of what is depicted could happen, but wouldn’t it be cool if it did?” Besides the two Hanks, there’s Johnny Cash sitting at a poker table with Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, George Jones, and Waylon Jennings, with Kris Kristofferson among the onlookers and Charlie Daniels, Jerry Reed, and Johnny Paycheck onstage playing.
In Border Patrol, five long-gun-wielding, pistol-packing lawmen — Robert Duvall (Lonesome Dove), Clint Eastwood (The Outlaw Josey Wales), John Wayne (True Grit), Kevin Costner (Open Range), and Tom Selleck (Quigley Down Under) — assert themselves against a parchment background inscribed with “We the People …”
Bad Man’s Bar
Western movies are also the theme of Bad Man’s Bar, which depicts “some of the meanest, nastiest characters” from western films. In it, Yul Brynner (West World), Bruce Dern (The Cowboys), and Lee Van Cleef (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) eyeball a card game between Eli Wallach (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), Ben Foster (3:10 to Yuma), Lee Marvin (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), and Jack Palance (Shane). There’s also Frank from Once Upon a Time in the West, Jack Elam tending bar, and the titular dead bodies strewn about.
“After creating the Bad Man’s Bar, I had a lot of movie villains in my mind that didn’t fit into the Western theme, so Terrible Tavern is the result,” Joyner says. “While most of my work is Western, Terrible Tavern is filled with some of the worst movie villains ever.” There are 91 film references, from Maleficent, Blair Witch Project, and The Exorcist to Carrie, Psycho, and Amityville Horror; from Cujo, Scarface, and Terminator to Jaws, Nurse Ratched, and even Hans Gruber from Die Hard mixed in for good head-scratching measure.
And then there’s Christmas Party, which shows characters from Rudolph, Miracle on 34th Street, Elf, The Grinch, Charlie Brown, Christmas Vacation, Scrooged, Polar Express, Home Alone, and Die Hard (“Yes, that’s a Christmas movie”) gathered around an overly large decorated tree.
“I do a lot of portraits of famous people,” Joyner says. “It’s surreal: I take something from one thing and put it with something else that doesn’t go together. It’s not necessarily something that can realistically happen. Sometimes the reason a person is placed near or next to another in the painting is just as important as why they are there.” The resulting juxtapositions can be so complex and numerous that he includes a legend or “cheat sheet,” to chart them all.
Start to finish, each painting takes Joyner as much as six months. He mostly works in pencil and acrylic paint, which he prefers over anything else because it dries quickly. Sometimes his ideas can take considerably longer to materialize, as with the 4-by-8-foot tribute to the movies of the 1980s that he’s been working on for the past two years. It features characters from 150 different movies of that era gathered in the library from The Breakfast Club.
Joyner’s been making art since he graduated with a BFA from the University of Montana in 1993. He taught art to students from 6th through 12th grade for eight years and now makes art full time in his home studio in Hamilton, Montana. Besides paintings and drawings, he also creates sculptures — bison skulls in bronze and bottle openers that resemble Big Foot, T-Rex, and grizzlies and bobcats, too.
Whatever he’s working on, his goal is the same: to give people a little pause from their lives. If nothing else, Joyner says, what he’s doing is unlike anything else. “I’m creating a new world. You can find a buffalo in the field or find one in a picture, but the stuff I’m doing is made up. It doesn’t exist. I have the stars of Dukes of Hazzard with some of the best Western people that ever were. Was Smokey and the Bandit a western? I have people say, ‘You left out so-and-so.’”
It’s not about making sense — if it makes you smile, that’s what Joyner’s going for. “I hope it’s enjoyable,” he says. “I hope that it brings joy or maybe makes someone laugh.” Not everyone gets it or loves it, but that doesn’t bother him. “These paintings bring out emotions and memories. You laugh, you think, you reminisce,” Joyner says. “I had a guy stare at that Terrible Tavern painting for 10 minutes, and he said, ‘What possessed you to do this?’ I said, ‘I just wanted to.’ And he said, ‘I don’t like it at all.’ Then he stared at it for 10 more minutes. Good or bad, you have to look at it.”
From our January 2022 issue
Photography: (All images) courtesy Tim Joyner