Will James: The Artist

Will James lived like a character in one of his own novels. The Canadian-born cowboy, writer, and artist came to Nevada in 1914. Soon after, he got caught in a rustling scheme and spent time in prison; he used the solitude of jail to sharpen his skills at drawing scenes depicting life on the ranch. James lived in a cabin in Washoe Valley south of Reno in the early 1920s and there began a highly successful career as an author of short stories and novels, which he illustrated with his own drawings and paintings. Smoky is considered one of James's most enduring works.

Below is reprinted with permission from the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly.

Nevada Historical Society Quarterly

Volume 33, Summer 1990, Number 2

Cheryl A. Fox

WILL JAMES (1892-1942)

The American West of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was popularly characterized as the new frontier, a place where rugged individualism prevailed and where miners, railroaders, prostitutes, ranchers, and cowboys confronted the elements and won. Historians of the last several decades have concluded that most of these early images are myths, prevalent in the public consciousness but lacking in reality. Central to these mythic ideas is the cowboy. Hollywood sensationalized him, poets wrote about him, and painters placed him on the range among his cows and horses.

Will James, an artist who painted in the tradition of Charles Russell, was a cowboy. His familiarity with the open range, herding cattle, and breaking horses, allowed him to capture in his illustrations, short stories, and paintings an image of the gritty individual accustomed to life on the range. James always tried to capture the real cowboy, not the heroic one who lived in the minds of most Americans. It is interesting that James did not sketch his subjects live on the range, but from memory in the comfort of his bunkhouse, studio, or wherever he might find a convenient place. Some of his earliest sketches were actually drawn in the quiet of a prison cell. James lived the life not only of the cowboy he sketched, but also of the cattle rustler who is absent from his canvas.

James arrived in Nevada in 1914 from Montana, a state he claimed as his birthplace, although he was actually born in Canada–another part of the myth at work. Although James was a skilled horseman and employed at the time, a friend talked him into rustling cattle from the ranch on which they both worked. When the cattle turned up missing after the two had quit their jobs, lawmen were quick to assume their guilt. James was sentenced to twelve to eighteen months in prison, the first of which was in Ely, Nevada, with the remainder served at the Nevada State Penitentiary at Carson City.1

James used the solitude to pursue what he loved as much as he did horses: drawing. The Ely Record in April 1915 revealed the talent of the cowboy artist: "His work is especially good on ranch scenes, and with proper training he would soon be able to do first class work." In August, after being transferred to Carson City, he took advantage of his talent in an attempt to influence the Nevada Board of Pardons to release him. In a sketch titled "A Turning Point," James depicts in three vignettes the past, the present, and the future. The past is represented by a forlorn cowboy, the present by a dejected individual in a prison cell, and the future by an aspiring artist. At the bottom he added, "Have had ample time for serious thought and it is my ambition to follow up on my art." 2

Upon his release, only a month short of his full term, James began to drift again. It was several years down the road, after a stint in the army during World War I, before Will James finally began to draw seriously. Following the war, James returned to Nevada and arrived in Reno in July 1919, in time for the First Annual Nevada Round-up, for which he illustrated the cover of the program. He was paid $50 for this work, most likely his first actual sale.3

While in Reno, James became reacquainted with Fred Conradt and Elmer Freel, men he had known before the war. The three became inseparable, dubbed themselves the "one-elevens," and began staging broncobusting exhibitions. This enterprise did not last long as James was thrown from a horse onto a railroad track, sustaining a severe concussion. While he convalesced at the Conradt home, James once more found himself in solitude. Again he turned to drawing and sketching the ranch scenes and cowboys for which he would become famous. He also entered into a relationship with Alice Conradt, the sister of his good friend. At age fifteen, Alice was infatuated with the twenty-seven-year-old cowboy artist and encouraged him to develop his talent as a career. It was at this point that Will James decided to make art his life's work, and he moved to San Francisco.4

In September 1919, James enrolled at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco and began taking evening classes, drawing during the morning and working in a theatre taking tickets in the afternoon. One of the most important benefits of his enrollment was the opportunity to meet the art establishment in the Bay Area. It was here that he met another cowboy artist, Lee Rice, who introduced him to Maynard Dixon and Harold Von Schmidt, an employee of the advertising firm of Foster and Kleiser. Rice, Dixon, and James spent time together, riding horses in the hills and talking about art. It was Dixon's ncouragement coupled with his own dissatisfaction that prompted James to quit art school, believing that formal instruction was smothering his style.5

James's entry to Joseph Henry Jackson, associate editor of the popular West Coast magazine, Sunset, came via a letter of introduction provided by an acquaintance who had been a fellow patient during the hospitalization in Reno. Jackson proceeded to purchase a couple of sketches and, prodded by Van Schmidt, published a series of James's sketches in the magazine. The first series ran in January 1920 and was titled "A One Man Horse"; it was followed by "Keno the Cow-Horse: A Life Story in Pictures" that ran in November. What was to become an important expression of James, the Keno sketches told a story in both illustration and an accompanying text. It is believed that this series was the beginning of Will James's career in writing as well as drawing.6

With confidence and hope, James returned to Reno in July 1920 and married Alice Conradt. She was by then sixteen years old and had no idea of what lay ahead for her and the cowboy artist she had married. James's artistic career had ups and downs, and when Sunset's editors believed that they had a sufficient backlog of his sketches, he and Alice decided to hit the trails again. He held a job in Kingman, Arizona, and then moved to Santa Fe to visit the art colony. It was surprising good luck that a couple of ranchers had the insight to invest in James's potential as an artist. Wallace and Ed Springer owned a ranch on the Cimarron River near Santa Fe, and they introduced him to Burton Twitchell, dean of students at Yale University, who was visiting the Springers on a hunting trip. With underwriting from the Springers, James entered the academic life in New Haven, away from friends, the desert, and Alice. Again James could not adhere to the regimen of art school. Alice joined him, and they set off for New York, where he tried to sell his work to Life Magazine. They were hopeful because of Twitchell's introduction, but the magazine refused to buy his work. Discouraged, he and Alice returned to Reno to decide their future.7

Once in Reno, Alice and Will James decided to move into a cabin in Washoe Valley that had been built by Alice's father. The two felt that this seclusion and environment would give James the motivation to continue with his artwork. It was during this time that Alice began to encourage her husband to write. In the fall of 1922, James began working on a piece titled "Bucking Horses and Bucking-Horse Riders," an illustrated story that included a dozen drawings. He submitted it to Scribner's Magazine in New York. The piece was accepted and James was paid $300 for his first illustrated story. This was a significant achievement, for he had finally broken into the eastern market.8

Working primarily in ink, James went on to produce six additional short stories that were published in 1923 and 1924, along with some forty-six drawings. Charles Scribner's Sons, publisher of books as well as of Scribner's Magazine, combined eight of James's stories into book form: Cowboys North and South was published in 1924 and brought rave reviews from critics and the reading public. The Saturday Evening Post and once again Sunset asked for James's work, and during 1924 and 1925 James supplied them with illustrated short stories.9

James had been used to working in ink, but many of the illustrations for the short stories during this period were done in pencil, a medium that produced a stronger and more powerful image, generally drawn on paper board. Author A. P. Hays describes James's work:

In the 1920s the Will James technique of drawing in pencil had become less linear, for the emphasis was on the mass rather than the line. He had learned how to suggest and capture the viewer's attention without burdening him . . . his work was permeated with a freshness and excitement . . . He was invariably original and never derivative.10

James's second book of illustrated short stories, published in December 1925, was titled The Drifting Cowboy, and included forty-one pencil drawings and sixteen in ink. Also during this year, James began work on his first novel, a children's book called Smoky. Within a year, Smoky was reprinted eleven times and won the American Library Association's Newbery Award for outstanding literature for children. In 1929, Scribner's decided to include Smoky as one of its Illustrated Classic Editions. For this they needed color plates, and James created nine oil paintings for the project. A similar project was organized in 1932 around Lone Cowboy, a fictional biography that received the same welcome as Smoky and entered Scribner's Classics. Lone Cowboy required eight oil paintings, three of which are considered the finest of James's oils.11

Although James was encouraged early in his career to paint, he did not often work in oil. He produced only a couple of dozen works, and ceased work in this medium after 1932. They are considered excellent in draftsmanship, design, and imagination, all qualities that James exhibited in his drawings. A. P. Hays claims that James's oils "can stand firmly with the best work in the Western action genre and of their era." James was extremely busy working on novels and sketching and probably did not have the time to devote to the more intensive work in oils. In addition, it is certain that James's alcoholism was affecting his work by this time.12

James moved with Alice to a ranch in Montana, where he became almost a hermit to his family and friends, spending long periods of time in his studio. He was very popular during the 1930s, was asked to speak at rodeos and give lectures, and was constantly on the road. This time was a difficult one for Alice as she watched her husband being consumed by drink, the primary reason that their marriage ended in 1935.

In 1933, James had moved to Hollywood during the filming of Smoky. He was usually too intoxicated to be of much use on the set, drifting in and out of consciousness, which some people believed was a sign of brain damage. He died in Hollywood on September 3, 1942, of cirrhosis of the liver. He was fifty years old.13

In 1985 the Nicolaysen Art Museum in Casper, Wyoming, initiated its publications program with an exhibition and catalog titled Will James: The Spirit of the Cowboy. This was the first major exhibition of James's work since his death, opening in Casper during April 1985 and traveling to the then Sierra Nevada Museum of Art in Reno in December. The catalog was considered the first substantial group of essays published about Will James as an artist and a writer. In the preface, the director of the Nicolaysen Art Museum said that, "James dramatically influenced twentieth-century American conceptions of the cowboy and the West," a judgment that describes exactly what James wanted to accomplish: to paint an accurate picture of the cowboy in the American West.

1. Anthony Amaral, Will James: The Last Cowboy Legend (University of Nevada Press, Reno, 1980), 1-5.
2. Ely Record, 24 November 1914; A. P. Hays, "The Art of Will James," in Will James: The Spirit of the Cowboy (Casper, Wyoming: Nicolaysen Art Museum, 1985): 52.
3. Hays, "The Art of Will James," 55.
4. Ibid., 56-57.
5. Ibid., 58.
6. Ibid., 56-57.
7. Ibid., 61-62.
8. Ibid., 64.
9. Ibid., 66-67.
10. Ibid., 68.
11. Ibid., 69-72.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid., 76.

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