By Dee Ann Littlefield
The sun brims over the horizon in a fine strip of light below looming clouds.
A soft breeze sweeps across the colorful landscape, rousing a fragrant aroma from the abundant wildflowers in bloom. A red pickup creaks and groans as it travels along a dirt road. Perched in the bed, three artists brace themselves and their cameras for their first glimpse at their subject: Four Sixes Ranch cowboys.
The iconic cattle operation has a history of inviting well-known professional artists to the ranch to capture and preserve its unique Western culture in different art forms. Mary Ross Buchholz, Shawn Cameron and Jan Mapes traveled to the Guthrie, Texas, ranch in 2019 to photograph the spring works.
They are the first women artists to be invited to the ranch, and will offer their artistic interpretations of the iconic horse and cattle operation at the Night of Artists Exhibition and Sale, March 27−28 at the Briscoe Western Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas.
The honor of photographing the experience was not lost on the artists. They were especially appreciative to be able to portray the stewardship of cowboy traditions, landscapes, wildlife and people that make up the ranch.
“We do this for a living, so we, of all people, have to get it right,” says Mapes. “As I sculpt and paint the scenes I am seeing out here [at the Four Sixes], I want people to see the character God put into each person and situation I portray, and the story that was happening at that moment in time.”
Buchholz creates intricate pencil drawings that reflect her daily life with her husband, Bob, on their ranch in Eldorado, Texas. Cameron hails from Arizona, where her family has ranched for more than 140 years. Her oil paintings—many of them featuring her husband, Dean—depict authentic scenes from her family’s ranch. Mapes, a painter and sculptor, and her husband, Jim, have ranched and raised Quarter Horses in southeastern Colorado for many years. The National Cutting Horse Association commissioned her from 2002 to 2005 to sculpt its official trophy.
The Four Sixes Ranch not only has a legacy of having some of the best horses, cattle and cowboys, but it also is the largest female-owned ranch in the United States. Ranch owner Anne Marion works with ranch manager Joe Leathers on a daily basis, discussing everything from work that needs done to the cattle trade boards and marketing opportunities.
“This ranch is her heart and passion,” says Leathers. “She has been a part of this ranch since she was born and she grew up learning from one of the best, her mother, Miss Anne. She is an amazing person and I have learned a lot from her.
“She is also an art collector, so to have these ladies come and paint the subjects that are near and dear to her, that means a lot to her.”
On that first morning of the photo shoot, the first cowboy the artists encounter during the gather is the legendary Boots O’Neal, horseback on the side of the road and casually resting his elbow on the saddle horn.
As the artists move closer to him, he greets them in a cheerful tone and
explains from which direction the cowboys will be bringing the herd and
where the women can position themselves to gain the best perspective for
Though the scene is familiar to them, they want to push themselves. Most importantly, they want to do it together.
“We want to explore new territory and capture images of cowboys and horses we aren’t familiar with, in scenery that is completely new to us,” says Buchholz. “Anne Marion’s passion for ranching and honoring the cowboy lifestyle has been exhibited at the Four Sixes with a rich heritage and background, and we want to portray that together. Portraying it accurately is of utmost importance to us.”
Cameron adds, “The depth of the West and ranching is culminated in the history and longevity of the Four Sixes Ranch. Stability is represented here with traditions upheld since 1870. As ranchers ourselves, we have a passion and admiration for the real thing, and this is it.”
In the distance they watch as cows that dot the lush, flower-speckled pastures are gathered into large groups and pushed toward the cattle pens. Sure enough, just as O’Neal predicted, they were in the right spot to take photos as the cowboys start stringing their morning gather together.
As the cattle filter into the pens, wagon boss Reggie Hatfield directs the traffic and then appoints everyone to their working positions. Most of the cowboys dismount, leaving a long line of horses tied to the fence, exposing various kinds of saddle and gear styles. Dust billows around the artists as they capture shots of expertly cast ropes snaring calves’ feet and bringing them to the branding fire. Two sets of teams work side by side as they swiftly flank, brand, ear-tag and vaccinate the calves. O’Neal, at 86 years old, wields the branding iron for one of the teams, while his brother, Wes, a year younger, brands the other set. The cowboys are used to working together, and cajole and tease each other.
The artists spent several days photographing these scenes in various pastures and pens across the ranch. They rose early and ate breakfast with the cowboys before heading out. The cowboys’ conversation was open and inviting as they shared stories with the artists and their husbands, who accompanied them on the trip.
“These cowboys and this ranch are truly authentic,” says Cameron. “The cowboy code is alive and well here, and as an artist with a ranching background, I can move in that realm.”
With hundreds of reference photos, the artists spent the summer working in their studios re-creating some of the characters and scenes they gathered from their visit on canvas or paper.
“To me, our art is a way to honor God’s creations while we are here,” says Mapes. “I want to show how our experience at the Sixes has touched me, and with God’s help, I hope to express it so others can appreciate it and be touched by it, too.”
For more information on the Night of Artists Exhibition and Sale, visit briscoemuseum.org.