You can tell you’re in cowboy country. Or can you? The car registration plates bear the legend “Native America”; the streets are named after the Cherokee, the Shawnee, the Delaware… and there are counties called Pawnee, Creek and Osage. It’s tempting to guess at the psychology behind it all, to speculate that even when an enemy’s well and truly beaten he still has something you secretly craved all along, an allure, a glamour. First overcome them, then honour them. In World War II American paratroopers adopted the war-cry `Geronimo!` - forty years after they’d locked the Apache chief away for good.
So maybe it makes some kind of sense to find the best collections of cowboy art right here in what was officially Indian Territory until the U.S. Government opened it up to white settlers in the late 1800s and made it the state of Oklahoma.
Of the three major collections within 150 miles of Oklahoma City perhaps the best known is the Cowboy Hall of Fame. Well, that’s what it used to be until they cottoned on to the fact that it sounded a little one-sided and re-named it The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. Gleaming, spacious, the exterior architecture acknowledging the Native tipi, it contains fourteen major galleries, a theatre, an events centre illuminated by five huge panoramic triptychs, and four separate formal gardens.
Mention “western art” in polite company and the first thing that comes up is Russell and Remington. Everyone likes them, so everyone’s in for a feast - of Remington’s dusty, dogged soldiers and Russell’s hell-raisin’ cowpokes, roaring into town to shoot up the local bars.
We think of these two as a double act, and certainly their subject matter overlaps. But there are differences. The formally trained Remington is master of that morning and evening light that brings the drabbest western landscape to life, and his canvases contrast with the occasionally slapdash work of the self-taught Russell. But Charlie Russell was the man. He suffered. He was there. Before he became a magazine illustrator he worked around the ranches - and it shows in the humour of a picture like “Meat’s Not Meat Till It’s In The Pan”, wherein some poor hunter’s killed a deer - which slips from his grasp and down the mountainside.
After feasting on those two you’re really spoiled for choice. Do you check out the Weitzenhoffer Gallery of Fine American Firearms, the Silberman Gallery of Native American Art, or the Joe Grandee Museum of the Frontier West? Either way, you aren’t likely to get out of here by sundown, let alone the three hours they suggest in the AAA guide. And as likely as not you’re going to get stopped in your tracks by James Earle Fraser’s startlingly life-like, 18-foot tall tribute to the Native American. It’s a controversial piece, depicting as it does a weary brave slumped over a horse, all in white marble and entitled “The End of the Trail”. But, as with so many personal views, it’s legitimised by its age: it dates from 1913, and at the very least it’s an authentic view from back then. Even though Fraser was a white man.
The Cowboy Hall of Fame – sorry, it’s less of a mouthful – isn’t all serious art. The children, and some of us Dads, will enjoy the Kiddies’ Corral, where they can try on a real cowboy boot, brand a piece of hide, crawl into a tipi, and listen to a tall tale at the knee of a moustachioed ranch-hand.
Then there’s Prosperity Junction, a beautifully re-created frontier town. When I dropped by it was in darkness. The honky-tonk piano in the Silver Dollar Saloon was playing `Buffalo Gals`. The air was thick with the smell of horses, with dust, with smoke from a train that had just pulled into the depot. A gun-toting sheriff prowled the mean streets. A shot rang out and someone yelled for help. Then there was just the chirruping of cicadas as the townsfolk scuttled into the church to shelter.
Ignoring the collections of barbed wire, boots, chaps and hats, pausing only to glance at the clips from old episodes of the Lone Ranger, I made my way to the Western Performers Gallery. Here at last was a bit of pure fluff: some not very wonderful oils of Tom Mix, Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, James Arness and the boys. They even had Matt Dillon’s sweetheart off Gunsmoke. And I bet that’s got you thinking. It was Amanda Blake, aka Miss Kitty, beauty spot and all.
The grounds of the NCWHM are splendid. But the trouble with their being so handily placed alongside the freeway is that your appreciation of the native plantings and statuary is disturbed by the roar of not-so-distant traffic. Among the features that decorate the Freda Hambrick Gardens is the grave of Tornado, a famous bucking bronco who threw 220 successive riders, until `Freckles` Brown stayed aboard for the regulation eight seconds back in 1967. That wasn’t the only record `Freckles` held, I suspect. In a 37-year rodeo career he sustained ten broken legs, two broken collar-bones and several ribs, snapped his neck twice….and wound up with a piece of hip-bone holding his spine together. Damned shame that he went and died of cancer.
I’d like to talk about catering at the NCWHM, but the mention of food leads my thoughts unerringly to the Thomas Gilcrease Institute in Tulsa. This place has class – bucketfuls of it. Even a cup of tea is a work of art. They give you a white plate, on which is a paper doily, a slice of lemon, a tea-bag, your own sachet of honey, a long-handled spoon… and a glass of hot water. Then they leave you to brew your own. The club sandwich is aptly named, being a loose confederation of ham, turkey, bacon, Swiss cheese, American cheese, tomato and lettuce, all on toasted bread containing seven different grains.
Not that Thomas Gilcrease would’ve paid $7.00 for a sandwich. No sir - at least, not when he was a youngster, one of fourteen children born to a Louisiana mother with Creek blood in her veins. But you might say that his lineage gave him his lucky break. Under the Indian Allotment Act he was able, as an adult, to claim 160 acres of Government land – and managed to get a piece slap on top of an oil-field. He made his pile, set up the Institute and in 1955 deeded it to the City of Tulsa. He had to: his shopping trips among western artists had by now bankrupted him.
The Museum houses an enormous collection of western, Native and Mexican art in the most elegant surroundings. Scattered about the galleries are restful alcoves where you can sit by tall windows and look out through the potted plants over wooded hills – or, if you prefer, read one of the art books scattered about the coffee-tables. In a place like this you need the occasional break, because the Remington bronzes, the Audubon wildlife studies, the huge landscapes of the Lancastrian Thomas Moran – Yellowstone, Acoma Pueblo, the Grand Canyon - they simply take your breath away.
But it’s soon back to business if you’re going to see more than a portion of what’s on offer. For delicacy of composition, for fine detail, for the play of light on human figures, there’s little to compare with Alfred Jacob Miller’s studies of hunters and trappers, red and white, mostly done in the days before the far West was conquered. And if that’s not enough, you suddenly find yourself confronted with the scholarly portraits of George Catlin, who came out in the 1830s and made it his life’s purpose to “rescue from oblivion the looks and customs of the vanishing races of native man”. They’re all there at the Gilcrease: Karl Bodmer, who went out as official artist with the German Prince Maximilian; Edward Curtis, who photographed the southwestern pueblos before D H Lawrence ever heard of them; Shirley Thomson-Smith and her sublimely sensual bronzes….
Gilcrease and the Hall of Fame are familiar names to cowboy fans – they’ll both feature in the picture credits of any illustrated volume on the West you pick up in those bargain book-shops. But if Woolaroc isn’t so familiar it certainly deserves to be. It’s an unusual sort of place, being set in a wildlife reserve about an hour’s drive north of Tulsa.
The cattle that roam the park are like any other breed of bovines: slow, thoughtful, you might even say dozy. But when they’re standing in the middle of the road and peering through your car windscreen you think twice about getting out and shooing them away. The clue’s in the name. They’re longhorns. I should say it’s about an eight-foot spread from tip to tip, and although I didn’t actually run my fingers over them I can tell you categorically that those tips are sharp. So it doesn’t pay to be in a hurry as you meander through 3,600 acres of rolling grassland towards the museum.
I was first through the gates when Woolaroc opened, but still took an age to reach the parking-lot. Simply too many photo-ops: first buffalo, then elk, ostrich, a few llama, and a very cute prairie dog who popped out from his burrow and tried to touch me for a snack.
Like the Gilcrease place, like much of Oklahoma, Woolaroc (it’s surrounded by WOods, LAkes and ROCks) is built on oil money. It was the brain-child of Frank Phillips – he of the Phillips 66 gas stations you see all across the Midwest. It started as a place to entertain his business contacts, and developed it into a celebration of the Old West he’d known as a young man. As his oil business grew he leased more land from the local Indians – and made them very rich. Small wonder that he was made an honorary Osage chieftain. Small wonder that he got them to donate so many artefacts.
Woolaroc has many of the same suspects you can see at Gilcrease and the NCWHM – Remington, Russell, Moran, et al – but by this time I was more interested in some beautiful Joe Beeler bronzes and sketches of everyday cowboy life, and a haunting composition by Michael Coleman of three tipis, all alone on a cold grey Plains dawning. In the Native American Centre you can see anything from traditional snow-shoes and moccasins to an early Cherokee newspaper; there’s a replica 1840s fur trader’s camp and a children’s zoo, as well as an Oil Patch where you can see how they pumped black gold in the 1930s. You can even test your strength against a One-Arm Johnny. I must admit I approached that one in a fever of speculation – but it turned out to be nothing more than a water-pump with a five-foot handle. And, as a reminder that Frank Phillips was an amateur archaeologist of note, there's one of his finds, a 95 million-year-old dinosaur egg.
Oklahoma is proud of its Indian heritage. And that’s official: there’s enough Indian symbolism in the tourist brochures – and on the number-plates. But it’s hard to escape the impression that they know where the big bucks are. In cowboy lore.