Watercolorist Teal Blake reflects on the road that led him to the Cowboy Artists of America and his first show with the group, which happened to coincide with its 50th anniversary.
Opening night at a prestigious art show and sale can be nerve-wracking for the most accomplished artists. Artists have spent the past year painstakingly preparing their best pieces in hope they resonate with collectors. At this year’s Cowboy Artists of America Exhibition and Sale, held during Cowboy Crossings at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, the pressure was on first-year CAA member Teal Blake. Not only was it his debut in the CAA exhibition, but it also happened to be the 50th anniversary of the group and there was a lot of buzz.
“Having my work hanging on the wall for the 50th anniversary is pretty intimidating,” says the 37-year-old artist, one of the youngest to be inducted into the CAA. “These guys are all great artists, and have a lot more knowledge and experience than I do.”
Blake created seven paintings for the show, a bold undertaking that began one year earlier, almost to the day.
“I started sketching my big piece, The Tularosa Cavvy, the night I was voted [into the CAA],” he says. “I had this chance and wanted to do something great.”
That same mentality has driven Blake throughout his art career. After spending his teenage years and most of his 20s in Montana and Idaho, rodeoing and riding cutting horses, Blake came home on a spring day in 2008, and on a whim set up an easel and decided to paint. He’d grown up watching his father, Buckeye Blake, make a living as an artist and wanted to give it a go, too.
“I was always sketching, but I didn’t have a palette, brushes or anything,” he recalls. “I thought if I was going to do this I needed to hit the ground running so I entered 14 shows that year.”
One of the shows was the 34th Annual Phippen Memorial Western Art Show and Sale at the Phippen Museum in Prescott, Arizona. His first big painting, Texas Half-Top, not only won the watercolor category at the show but also best of show. Blake built on that success in 2010, receiving an award at the Phippen given by the CAA for the most authentic portrayal of horses and cowboys in Western art. Little did he realize, four years later he’d be part of the group.
“Growing up, I always knew what the CAA was, and I admired many of the artists in it and their work,” he says. “As I got older, I started to admire the reason the CAA was started and what it continues to stand for. Once I figured out I could make a living painting and enjoyed it, I started thinking of what the top rung of the ladder would be in the Western art world and aim for it.”
That goal was to become a member of the CAA. To be inducted into the group, an artist has to be invited by a CAA member to submit his portfolio for review during the group’s annual trail ride and meeting. From there, the members decide if the artist’s work fits the CAA’s standards. If it does, the artist is invited to the CAA’s annual exhibition and sale in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for an interview and to display his best work. Then the members vote to determine whether the artist gets into the group.
Blake submitted his portfolio for review twice but didn’t make the cut. In early 2014, Bruce Green persuaded him to submit again.
“I was living in Montana at the time and we’d had one of those Charlie Russell, 40-below-zero winters and I had a lot of time to paint,” Blake recalls. “I was doing really good work and could see myself improving every day.”
In June, during the trail ride, Green and fellow honorary CAA member Red Steagall notified Blake he was invited to Oklahoma City for the next phase of the process.
“I was in the middle of moving back to Texas and painting seven original paintings to show them,” he says. “I could’ve used existing work, but I wanted to let them know I was serious and a good fit.”
Blake was inducted into the group by a majority vote and spent his rookie year attending 50th anniversary functions, including exhibitions and celebrations held at the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Georgia, and the Dallas Country Club in Dallas, Texas. In June, he attended the annual trail ride at the Circle 13 Ranch in Clifton, Texas.
“It was nice to hang around with the artists outside of a show and kick back and enjoy each other and tell stories,” he says. “You really see the brotherhood of this group come into play at the ride. I didn’t realize how close of a group this is and how supportive of each other they are. Once you’re in, you become family.”
That support was apparent October 9-10 during the CAA show and sale at Cowboy Crossings. Longtime CAA members stopped by to compliment Blake on his paintings. At the end of the night, Blake had sold most of his paintings and received a silver medal in water solubles for Headed for the Oxbow. Still, the artist says he still has a lot left to learn and will continue to raise the bar on his paintings and uphold the mission of the CAA “…to preserve and promote the profession, in the traditional sense of [Frederic] Remington and [Charles] Russell.”
“When you’re part of an association that has been active as long as the CAA, you have to learn to roll with the times and bring it into the next generation, which is what I hope to help do. I don’t want to let down anyone who voted for me, and I sure don’t want to let myself down.”
The exhibit remains on display through January 3, 2016, at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and pieces are still available for purchase. For more information, visit nationalcowboymuseum.org.