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January 16, 2011

'Cowboy Artist'

January 16, 2011|By Lois V. Harris
  • "The Cowboy Artist"
"The Cowboy Artist" (Charles Russell )

In the shadow of the schoolhouse, twelve-year-old Charlie's long fingers shaped and squeezed a lump of clay.

"Hurry," said his friend, Rubin. "We'll be late. Hey, a horse!"

Charlie dropped the small sculpture into Rubin's hand. "That's for doing my math homework." They grinned at each other.

"I'm heading down to the river," said Charlie.

"You'll get another licking from the teacher," said Rubin.

Charlie shrugged. "I'm tired of school." And he slipped behind the building and hurried away.

Charlie was born in 1864 and lived in St. Louis, Missouri. The city's riverfront swarmed with explorers, settlers, soldiers, and traders. He often listened to their stories and would wave goodbye as their paddleboats left for the upper Missouri River.

"Someday," Charlie thought, "I'll go, too."

Charlie read adventure stories about Injuns, pioneers, and the wilderness. He dreamed of living in a frontier cabin, owning a rifle, and battling outlaws and wild animals.

One day his father said, "Would you like to go West, Charles? I know a Montana sheep rancher who needs help this summer. I was thinking of letting you go."

Charlie gasped.

"You will stay but a few weeks, I imagine," said Charlie's father. "Then you will be glad to get back home and go to work in school."

"When?" Charlie shrieked. "When can I go?"

A few days later, right before his sixteenth birthday, he slipped a box with brushes, paints, and a tin of beeswax for sculpting into his suitcase. Charlie traveled over 1,800 miles by train and stagecoach to Helena, Montana.

Wagons pulled by mules or oxen stirred up the dusty streets. Cowboys on horses galloped into town. Native Americans wore animal skins and colored blankets.

"I like this country," said Charlie to himself. And he bought a horse, cowboy hat, boots, and a lasso and went to work on the sheep ranch.

But he did not like taking care of sheep and soon left. "I'm not going home," thought Charlie. "I want to be a cowpuncher."

After awhile, Charlie got a cowboy job on the open range. Each evening, the men sat around a campfire and told stories. They liked his funny ones, and someone always said, "Hey, Kid, it's your turn."

While Charlie spoke, he drew a picture or sculpted a beeswax figure of the main character. Sometimes Charlie would hide one hand in his pocket. At the end of the story, he would pull out a small wax sculpture and give it to a listener.

Later on, Charlie became a full-time artist. He created book and magazine illustrations, drawings, paintings, and sculptures. Charlie also wrote funny magazine stories and a book. People said, "His love of the West shines through all his work."

Charlie exhibited his art from Los Angeles to London, England. Everyone called him "The Cowboy Artist." His name was Charles M. Russell. On October 24, 1926 at the age of sixty-two, he suddenly died. But his art survives to tell the true story of the Old West.

To learn more, visit You can learn more about Charlie and see pictures of his art at the C.M. Russell Museum website, or see his art at the William S. Hart Ranch and Museum and Park in24151 Newhall Ave Newhall, CA and at the Autry National Center in4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles, CA.

Lois V. Harris is the author of the picture book "Charlie Russell, Tale-Telling Cowboy Artist." available at your local bookstore.

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