by Christine Hamilton
“Have you heard of the Dells?” a woman’s pleasantly quiet voice asked me. She was petite with close-cropped hair and a bright smile.
I was studying a George Phippen oil painting on a well-lit gallery wall of the Phippen Museum in Prescott, Arizona. The woman, Marsha, wore a museum docent nametag.
I didn’t mind the interruption. The painting, Jim Wilkinson’s Favorite Spot in Lonesome Valley, was of a cowboy high on a ridgeline, seated on the ground in front of his dozing horse, looking out at a valley below with white-capped mountains in the distance. Smiling at its authentic details, I had just wondered where that beautiful spot might be when Marsha spoke.
When I shook my head, she waved me just a few feet over to a wide, south-facing window and threw her hands wide: “There!” I had a formal introduction to Prescott’s famous giant granite boulders known as the Granite Dells, and, I would soon learn, where the museum’s namesake first made his home in Arizona.
Marsha pointed out the right side of the window across the highway adding, “and that is the Wilkinson Ranch,” referring back to the painting she had found me studying. The family had been kind enough to walk it across the road to be included in the special exhibit that brought me to town.
“Happy Birthday George: 100 Years of Inspiration” is a unique and comprehensive tribute to the legendary cowboy and Western artist’s work, from sketches and oils to watercolors and bronzes. It’s a rare chance to see the scope and mastery of the man who was one of Cowboy Artists of America’s founders and its first president.
Even better for me, it’s art located at the heart of where it was inspired. The Granite Dells lie at the southwestern end of Wilkinson’s beloved Lonesome Valley. Phippen painted the oil for his neighbor, in trade for a rifle (a tidbit I learned from Marsha).
It harks to what I’ve always loved about Western art—it springs from the country itself. I love the American West in every direction, for its space and colors in big sky and country, just like Jim Wilkinson’s favorite spot.
I also love it for the way the land will not be ignored in the lives of the people who make their living in it. It’s hard for me to imagine any subject that Western art would depict that could be isolated from its landscape—not a 16-plait rawhide hackamore; not a San Idelfonso bowl; not Jim Reynolds’ painting of The Good Life of a cowboy.
In my mind, what could be more cool than seeing George Phippen’s iconic bronze, Rockhopper, of a horse and cowboy chasing strays over rocky Arizona country, in the light of a window looking out on that same country? The masterful bronze celebrates life in this ground.
And thank heaven for folk like Marsha, there to help me see it. A 20-year resident of Prescott, she is filled to the brim with little-known stories behind the museum’s treasures. If you get a chance to see this exhibit—at the Phippen Museum through July 19—ask her to spill out a few.