Steamboat Art Museum exhibit examines rural life
June 13, 2008
Steamboat Springs — In three generations of ranch cartoons, a lot has changed. But then again, it hasn’t really.
Although J.R. Williams’ single-panel drawings have more text and penciled-in detail than those that came after him, his cowboy-centric cartoons of the 1920s focus on themes that resonate with rural life today: urban misconceptions of ranch life, trying to work independently through tough circumstances and the trials of domestic life.
Cartoonist Jerry Palen, whose work is featured alongside that of Williams and Ace Reid this summer at the Steamboat Art Museum, said the best stories come from experience, no matter when they’re told.
“My father was a large-animal veteran, and he took me and my brother with him to do all the dirty work when he would go out to his clients,” Palen said, explaining the inspiration for his popular cartoon, “Stampede.”
“The reflections are from people that I would meet in rural America there, from farmers and ranchers,” he said.
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Depicting a husband (Elmo), a wife (Flo) and their dog, Palen said his cartoons recognize the husband-and-wife team that makes rural America go, and takes a humorous look at how that team works.
“In rural America today, the wife – the Flo of the team – is really the one that does more of the business end of it than the men, and so I try to reflect that,” Palen said on the phone from his home in Saratoga, Wyo. Inspiration for “Stampede” comes from the same source.
“It’s either from following my wife around, or, we just came back from a conference for the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, and you just sit around there, and you just listen to all the wonderful stories,” he said.
With degrees in economics and political science, Palen said he always was drawn to art and remembers growing up around cartoons about cowboys on big company ranches by J.R. Williams. He got back into drawing after years away from it while he was working as a bank examiner.
“I spent my off hours in the hotel rooms doing little paintings and was particularly enamored at that point with cartoons,” he said. “I started drawing cartoons, and my darling wife, Ann, said one day, ‘I’m tired of you whining about doing what you want to do.'”
Palen took his wife’s advice, gathered up about 10 cartoons he’d done and sold them for $5 apiece to Western Horseman Magazine, out of Colorado Springs. It was the easiest money he ever made, Palen said, and he never looked back.
And though his cartoon has traces of generations past, Palen said “Stampede” keeps with the times.
“My cartoon series is present time; it really reflects what’s going on today,” he said. “If gas prices are going up, then I try to put that in one of my cartoons. If something’s going on, I try to address it.”
Palen’s cartoons will be on display as part of the Steamboat Art Museum’s “Western Humor” exhibit through Aug. 28. The show is on loan from the University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center. Shirley Stocks of the Steamboat Art Museum said the show is of interest for its light-hearted look at rural life.
“I think it just gives you the more humorous side of what ranch life is like and what the Western lifestyle is like,” Stocks said. “It’s a hard lifestyle sometimes working a ranch and being a cowboy, and these guys have done a good job of making that light.”