Eye on the Locals: Last August & September, the Bonita Museum hosted “Tip of the Hat: 50 Years of the Cowboy Artists of America.” An exhibit of approximately 40 paintings from private collectors in Rancho Santa Fe and La Jolla, the lead for this exhibit was local Bonita sculptor, Mehl Lawson.
He has been a board member off-and-on at the Bonita Museum for many years. He is also a Bonita local. His exhibit was resoundingly popular and studying the paintings, I discovered an art form I didn’t know existed: that of the cowboy artist. Not only are there full-time, paid and hard-working cowboy artists, but they also have exclusive an association. Mehl Lawson is our very own local who sat down to tell me a lot more.
Mehl Lawson, Sculptor
Here’s how the exclusive Cowboy Artists of America describes Mehl:
There is the same kind of magic in the hands that shape the sculptor’s clay as there is in the hands that hold the reins of a spade-bit horse. Mehl Lawson is accomplished in both venues and brings to each a concentrated focus that produces horseback memories and sculptural images of pure grace and beauty. Mehl excels at depicting the devotion between man and his horse, and his sculptures capture the spirit of the Western buckaroo — the working men of the great California and Nevada ranches.
He is happy to combine the world of horses with that of fine art, and it was this skillful combination that got him elected to the CAA in 1982. He lives in Bonita, California.
For the Love of Horses
Mehl was born in Santa Ana, Orange County. His father owned a poultry ranch there and then also in Vista. His father grew up in Texas and his mother was from Arkansas. Neither one of them were artists and neither one of them were interested in cowboys. Mehl explains that he just had a rogue gene some people are born with that makes them want be a cowboy or an artist.
During high school, Mehl became particularly interested in horses. He was able to apprentice for a top show horse trainer. Once he graduated from Vista High School, he moved to Costa Mesa to attend Orange Coast College that had an animal husbandry program. His goal was to become a horse trainer. After graduating, he went on to train show horses for about twenty years.
He came down to Bonita in 1968.
“I came down here and went to work for a friend of mine training horses out of his farm. I trained there for about five years and I spent about seven more years in Bonita at my own business. Then I phased out of the business the year I went into art full time, which would have been 1979.”
The Making of a Cowboy Artist
Mehl created his first sculpture in 1977.
“I was doing a little art. I was painting and I got interested in sculpting. I just wanted a sculpture for myself, so I did a sculpture for myself and I sold it. Then I did an edition of twenty of them and it was going like crazy, so I did another one. I’m thinking, you know, if I’m going to get into art full-time, it might not be a bad idea. I would probably be better as a sculptor than a painter. So I put the painting on the back burner and I focused on the sculpting. I think that was about ’77 or ’78. By 1979 I was out of the horse business and did art full time.”
It wasn’t easy. Mehl was self taught, so he learned through trial & error as well as perseverance. A mere two years later, he was accepted into the exclusive Cowboy Artists of America. He also was elected to the Board of Directors for a time. “It’s the highest thing you can ever do in Western art.”
Cowboy Artists of America
“I think the name Cowboy Artists of America identifies the kind of art that we’re creating.”
Mehl explains that most of the artists aren’t cowboys. Although he’s made a living a lot of his life on the back of a horse, he wouldn’t describe himself as a cowboy. Somebody who works on a ranch is a cowboy.
The members of Cowboy Artists of America have a deep interest in the Old West. For Mehl, his whole life has been horses. Ever since he was a young boy, “All I could think about was horses… I could create my own little world of cowboy life by drawing pictures of them.”
Cowboy Artists of America is a very small, very exclusive group. In the whole 50 years, there’s only been 77 artists West of the Mississippi. There’s only been 5 in California in its history. Mehl is the last living one from California.
Artists must apply or sometimes members see somebody they like and invite them in. They must have good character to be voted in and must be full time artists. Three-quarters of the art must be cowboy art. If they want to do landscape art, they can do that, but on their own time.
Some years they get dozens and dozens of applications. Sometimes year they only get a few. Normally the membership will run 20 to 25 at any given time.
The “home” of the Cowboy Artists of America is where their big show is–in Oklahoma City at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. This year they teamed up with the Traditional Cowboys Arts Association, which is made up of the elite bit & spur makers, saddle makers and raw hide makers. Both shows display their work inside the mammoth museum. The works are also on sale and Mehl says the average saddle can run up to $40-50,000.
How did cowboys come to our little neck of the woods in the South Bay?
Mehl says, “The Bonita Museum has been here since 2006. They asked me in 2007 to come and do a little show of my sculptures, which I did, and when I was taking the show down, the director at the time came up to me and said, “You know, we just moved into the museum about a year ago and nobody in town knows about it. If you can think of any ideas to get people in here, help us with it.”
“It wasn’t but a month or two later that I get a commission to do this big life-size horse with a cowboy on it. It was too big for my studio. I thought: the Bonita Museum. So I came down here and said, ‘I need a place and you need something to bring people in.'”
“Seven months I was in here working and we had hundreds of people in here. People would come every week to see the progress on it. When they had relatives come into town, they would bring them. This was in 2007.”
He created a life-size horse sculpture called Watching Them Water. The sculpture currently stands in Wyoming at the Wagon Hound Ranch, a private ranch of about 150,000 acres.
Mehl also played the leading role for the museum’s Tip of the Hat: 50 Years of the Cowboy Artists of America. He knew two local art collectors, one in Rancho Santa Fe and the other in La Jolla. The collectors also happen to be board members of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. Mehl went to their homes and cherry picked the art to create the exhibit. They were paintings never before shown to the public.
Mehl’s pieces exhibit all over the country as well as internationally. He’s exhibited in Dallas and Atlanta. He’s also exhibited his works in China and Japan. You can also contact the Bonita Museum and ask when he’ll be back with more!