Cowboy Artist Mikel Donahue draws from his days on his grandad's ranch and his time among working cowboys for his award-winning work.
On a spring Friday morning in Oklahoma City, Tulsa Cowboy Artist Mikel Donahue and his wife, Christie, sit sipping coffee in a local coffee shop talking about quarter horses. One of their fillies, still trying to find her legs, just raced at Remington Park the night before, and the Donahues have high hopes for her.
Long Days by Mikel Donahue; 20" x 26"; Mixed media (acrylic & colored pencil); Premier Platinum Award & William E. Weiss Purchase Award Buffalo Bill Art Show
These days, raising quarter horses on their small ranch outside of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, is a passion for the couple, but for Donahue himself, ranching has always been a part of his life in one way or another.
Donahue was born and raised in Tulsa, and one of his grandfathers owned a ranch and raised cattle in North Central Oklahoma. His other grandfather was a painter who took the young man to the famed Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa and the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum (then named the Cowboy Hall of Fame and Museum) in Oklahoma City to view Western art.
Together, those two influences created the person Donahue is today: one of the top cowboy artists in the nation and a member of the prestigious Cowboy Artists of America. His paintings, realistic and rich with the warmth of dusty corrals and cracked saddle leather, depict the everyday chores of cowboys and ranch hands.
Out Of The Wind by Mikel Donahue; 19" x 28"; Acrylic
“That’s what it is — not to simplify it or make it less than what it is, but being a cowboy is not riding after cattle every day,” he says. “Yeah, that’s one thing that they do, but it’s the day-to-day, morning-to-night thing they do that makes their way of life worth painting.”
A big man, he has the look of someone who’s comfortable on a horse and out in the fields. But his almost-shy smile gives him an approachable look. Decked out in a plaid shirt and blue jeans, he could easily fit in with the ranchers and cowboys he paints.
He knows firsthand his Western subjects.
After a 33-year successful and award-winning career in the advertising and graphic design business, Donahue has created an award-winning second career in the fine arts, painting cowboy scenes that continually win awards in some of the top Western art shows in the nation. His honors include Best of Show and multiple gold and silver medals at the Cowboy Artists of America annual exhibition and sale; the Academy of Western Artists’ Will Rogers Award for Artist of the Year; and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center’s Premier Platinum Award, William E. Weiss Purchase Award, and Artists Choice Award.
As Donahue talks over the sounds of baristas grinding coffee and the chatter of college students at the next table, we explored how a Tulsa “jock” became one of the top artists in the country.
Spring Work on the Cataract by Mikel Donahue; 24" x 36"; Mixed media; Gold Medal for Mixed Media Cowboy Artists of America 2019
Cowboys & Indians: How did your childhood and your grandparents influence who you are as an artist today?
Mikel Donahue: We lived in Tulsa, so it was a pretty standard setting. I played ball and went to school. But my mom’s dad, they lived down around Seminole. He painted and enjoyed it but never really sold much of his work. He would paint scenes off of calendars and magazine covers. When we were young, he had a love for the Western artists like Charlie Russell and Remington. When the Cowboy Hall of Fame opened in 1965, he wanted to go. When they would come to Tulsa, we’d go to the Gilcrease. I liked it all. I thought it was fun. My dad’s father grew up cowboy. He was born in 1893, and they raised cattle and wheat. I went there as much as I could. When I got old enough to drive, I was there all the time and even worked there in the summers. We were there one spring, when I was 8 or 9. One night, my grandfather came in to get Dad because one of the mama cows was having trouble calving. I pleaded to go out there with him, and he told me I could if I stayed quiet. I watched a calf being born, and that was a big deal to me.
Poker Night by Mikel Donahue; 22" x 32"; Acrylic; Anne Marion Best of Show Award; Gold Medal for Water Solubles Cowboy Artists of America 2021
C&I: Did you get interested in art as a child?
Donahue: I did a lot of doodles when I was a child, but that was really it. I played basketball in high school, and the class I elected to have before practice every day was an art class. In college, I went to Northeastern Oklahoma in Miami and played ball there for a year, but I blew out my knee. I transferred to the University of Tulsa, got my degree in commercial design, and spent the next 33 years as a designer, art director, and eventually creative director after working for various ad agencies and design studios. I did a bit of art on the side, and when Christie and I met in 2001, I was working on a little sketch.
Christie Donahue: Oh, it was much more than a “little sketch!” I saw this Western piece he had done. I showed it to some people, and history was born. They asked if he would paint something for the American Quarter Horse Association Foundation as a donation for a fundraising event.
C&I: You are known for your depictions of ranch life. How do you find inspiration for your work?
Donahue: First of all, the goal is to become part of that group of cowboys and make friendships. You get accepted as somebody who they can relax around and be themselves, and that takes time. So when they’re working cattle and you’re taking pictures of them, they’re not concerned about you. You disappear and become part of the landscape.
The Legacy Lives On by Mikel Donahue; 20" x 30"; Acrylic; Silver Medal for Water Solubles Cowboy Artists of America 2019
C&I: Tell me about becoming a member of the Cowboys Artists of America Association.
Donahue: I was brought up in 2011 but got voted down. I missed getting in by one vote. Then five years later, I didn’t even know I was up for consideration. I was in the studio at home one afternoon and got a phone call from the president, Ron Riddick, to let me know I was one of the newest members of the CAA. When I’m fortunate enough to win an award at the annual CAA show, it makes me very mindful of looking back historically on previous members who won those awards in past years and seeing what they did. It increases the awareness of the importance and the value of what you’re doing. It inspires you to push yourself and do the kind of work that’s expected of the CAs.
Burning Daylight by Mikel Donahue; 20" x 26"; Mixed media (acrylic & gouache); Gold Medal for Mixed Media Cowboy Artists of America 2021
C&I: What’s in your future these days?
Donahue: Coming up, I have the annual Cowboy Artists of America trail ride — this year on the 6666 Ranch in Texas. Then I head to the Briscoe Western Art Museum in San Antonio for the opening of the Sons of Charlie Russell retrospective CA show. After that, I’m off to the Babbitt Ranches in Arizona. I have several shows between Babbitt’s and November. In early November, there’s the annual CA sale and exhibition, which is always a big event, and I’ll be intensely painting for that. I don’t plan to retire anytime soon.
Peppermint Patty by Mikel Donahue; 15" x 18"; Mixed media (acrylic & colored pencil)
See Mikel Donahue’s work through September 5 in The Sons of Charlie Russell: The Cowboy Artists of America exhibition at the Briscoe Western Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas, and November 4 – 5 in the Cowboy Artists of America’s 56th Annual Exhibition and Sale at the Amon G. Carter Jr. Exhibit Halls in Fort Worth, Texas. He is represented by Settlers West Galleries in Tucson, Arizona; Broadmoor Galleries in Colorado Springs, Colorado; and Mountain Trails Gallery in Santa Fe. Visit the artist online at mikeldonahue.com.