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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   January 2009

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The Cowboy Way

Artist Jean Bohlender chronicles the working lives of contemporary cowboys on a Buckhorn ranch for an exhibit that opens Feb. 7.

By Donna Clayton

This ain't yer typical gallery wine-and-cheese deal, no sir! Next month, Feb. 7, from 4-7 p.m., Seedboat Gallery in Silver City will unveil "Branding on the Moon," an exhibit of works by artist Jean Chandenais Bohlender, depicting the gritty days and star-filled nights of the real-life cowboys who work the Moon Ranch in Buckhorn. Several of the subjects in Bohlender's paintings will put in an appearance at the show's opening. And, in keeping with the cowboy spirit, a bubbling crock of green chili stew will grace the hors d'oeuvres table.

Bohlander Cowboys
Branding on the Moon

Attendees can expect to rub up against an authentic American Dream that is simultaneously universal and personal.

"Most of us romanticize the American cowboy, a vanishing species that always was a minority in America, yet held heroic stature in our hearts and tall tales," Bohlender says. "'Branding on the Moon' is not a romanticized version of the Old West. It is a story, a depiction, hopefully, worthy of the legend, of today's cowboys at work. There are no mugs of coffee and campfires or squinty eyes. These cowboys wear sunglasses, use propane and drink sodas!"

Bohlender, who lives in San Simon, Ariz., spent months getting to know the cowboys, following them through their days and nights, over their meals and roping duties. She observed their quiet time reading in the evening as well as their action-packed moments branding the cattle. The experience gave her the opportunity, she says, to get a taste of life on the range well beyond her own romanticized ideas.

"The reality is no less lofty than our dreams, but I found a lot of the work to be less than romantic," Bohlender says. "The romance is what exists in the hearts and minds of the men who work in some of the most beautiful places left in America, riding on and working together with the most gallant, beautiful and loyal of animals. Horse and cowboy together, dealing with independent-minded creatures in heat, dirt, smells, sweat and blood."

To capture the cowboys in action, Bohlender took hundreds of photographs from which to work. "I'm out there with a camera, and there is a curious and interesting combination of shyness and ham in the men," she says. "The first 100 pictures I took had only the tops of their cowboy hats, as they tip them to hide behind as well as tipping them in courtesy.

"But when things get going, they forget the camera, and what I captured are men at work, doing whatever it takes to get an unpredictable job done well and safely. I found the romance, beauty and poetry in all of them, and what they do."

Some of Bohlender's photos also will be on display at the exhibit, showing the actual scenes and moments, the faces and gestures that inspired the paintings.

"In the paintings, I tried to bring in all the elements of space, light, heat, dust, the work and effort, the brotherhood," she says, then adds humorously, "and I think I managed to leave out the smells!"

With obvious admiration and affection, she describes the bearing and skill of her subjects. "Each cowboy has a different bearing, attitude and chemistry, that works with the job he does and how he does it," Bohlender says. "Booner can ride through swirling black masses of wary cattle and leave a settling calm in his wake. Kenny tells funny stories of cowboys from years ago while doing one of the most unpleasant of tasks and keeps the day lighter. Keener commands the rope and keeps a confident seat on his horse, moving like poetry.

"Junior helps facilitate the operation and, even though no longer on a horse (owing to being in his 70s and having broken his fair share of bones), keeps a knowledgeable, experienced eye out in order to keep things running smoothly. Sherman projects a cheerful willingness and rides his beautiful horse and posts sentry keeping the cattle gathered. Frank and Jake chip in wholeheartedly with a willingness to help wherever needed. Will prances peripherally, always in motion."

Ranch manager Jay Ray, Bohlender says, "is in control of so many variables, always where he needs to be. Everywhere you look, there's Jay Ray, comfortable, confident and aware."

Bohlender says her goal with all her painting is "to tell an honest story," to express on canvas what she experienced, how it impressed her, and to bring that feeling to the viewer.

"What a fabulous, nice, good group of people," she says of "her" cowboys. "It was an honor for me to be included in their working day, and, hopefully, in their lives.

"It is art. It is poetry. It is science," Bohlender says of the work, the cowboy way. "It is the grand hearts of the men."

"Branding on the Moon" will be exhibited at Seedboat Gallery, 214 W. Yankie St., Silver City, with an opening reception Feb. 7, 4-7 p.m. 534-1136, seedboatgallery.com For more on artist Jean Bohlender, see the January 2008 Desert Exposure.


Donna Clayton is senior editor of Desert Exposure.



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