It’s been three years since cowboys, cowgirls, rancher poets, and folkloric NPR types have made the trip to Elko, Nevada for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. But you wouldn’t know it if you visit the Weigand Gallery. Everything is as it’s always been. Men and women don their same pre-covid hats and boots, pearl-snapped patterned shirts, bolo ties, and an alarming ratio of handlebar mustaches to regular mustaches. Despite wearing a Wrangler sweatshirt myself—the closest I can get to western wear without feeling like an imposter—I am immediately outed by my puffy coat and lack of easy manner that seems to come with proximity to horses.
Some of the people in the gallery are here to stand in line for a ticketed show—a variety music act featuring favorites like Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Andy Hedges, Lara Manzanares, and newcomer Ismay. It’s very popular and has caused a line 50 yards and 40 minutes long to snake in and out of the room. Others are here to see the Western Folklife Center’s latest exhibition commemorating the 38th Gathering, 30 Years of Contemporary Cowboy Gear, which displays nearly 100 items including elaborate saddles, intricate spurs, mecate rope, rawhide lassos, and a dozen watercolor portraits.
I’m here to meet watercolorist Willy Matthews and discuss his paintings. Since I have arrived on the last day of the event, I am more frazzled and less prepared than in past gatherings and have failed to note that in addition to Meg Glaser, Waddie Mitchell, Jeremiah Watt, and Hal Cannon, Matthews is not only an artist but also a co-curator and the primary collector of the exhibition. I eventually realize my mistake but am not made to feel bad about it, at least not by Matthews.
Over the next half hour, he and I walk through the gallery and talk about cowboy gear, the best watercolor paper in America, hackamores, and the virtues of boredom—among other things. There are so many items in the exhibition that we don’t even get to—the mesmerizing silver spurs, James Shoshone’s ink drawings, or the elephant in the room, which is actually a two-headed calf (a gift to the collection from cowboy poetry founding father Waddie Mitchell).
How did you get involved with the Gathering?
My friend Kurt Marcus, the great photographer, invited me out for the very first gathering and I couldn’t make it. But I’ve been coming since the second gathering. When I came out, I met a bunch of guys. I met Waddie Mitchell, among others. Here’s a painting I did of Waddie.
He’s a bit younger there.
Yes, he is. He invited me out to his ranch. He was running the Church Ranch, and so I started seeing buckaroo life up close and personal. He started introducing me to different men in the area. I was interested in them because of their variety of expertise.
Expertise in ranching?
Expertise in everything. That was really what interested me more than anything, was how they were capable of doing so many things. Besides being a buckaroo, you know, they could build a house, they could fix the radiator, they could cook a meal, they could set a bone, they could rebuild a carburetor. They could fix a prolapsed uterus after a calf was born. And if they had never done something before, they could figure out how to do it. As a child of the 60s, having grown up in San Francisco as a hippie, our goal was to be able to be self-sufficient. These were the first men that I’d ever met who really were. I found them fascinating so I started doing paintings of them.
A lot of them were really great craftsmen and they didn’t want me to pay them, period. They were friends and they appreciated the paintings and the fact that I found them interesting subjects and weren’t interested in being compensated monetarily. But I was doing paintings of them and selling them and making reasonable money, so I decided that if I bought what they built, I could reward them. And I could also donate the collection to the Western Folklife Center.
Oh—so that’s how this gear collection got started. Your involvement is much more than just your paintings. You’re a collector, too.
I was doing paintings of the guys, but what this show is here is some of the gear collection, as well as paintings of the makers over the years.
I didn’t realize this exhibition was set up like that. Can you walk me through some of your portraits of makers and the items they’ve made?
Here’s Scott Brown, the great saddle maker. This was the cover of Southwest Art. It was the first time I’d been on a magazine cover. It was just this [painting] and it said down in the lower right hand corner, “William Matthews.” I was so happy because I had just started my career as a watercolor artist and I could send this to my father, who thought I was crazy. I had given up a good design business where I had a dozen people that worked for me. I had a wife and two little kids and I’d given all of that up to be a full-time artist. Yeah, he thought I was out of my mind. But all of a sudden I was on the cover of Southwest Start with this painting and my name. He carried around that magazine in his pocket for a month. And then he died of a heart attack. But at least he knew I was gonna be OK.
That’s really special. That must have felt really good.
Well, not the fact that he died. But the fact that he felt … things were kind of resolved.
Do you have any of Scott Brown’s work in the exhibit?
So here’s Scott Brown’s saddle. … He moved to Salt Lake City after [making] this. He started building violins while in Macomb school. He builds beautiful violins that are well sought after.
Who is this one a portrait of?
This is a painting of Bill Black. This is an old painting I did of him many years ago. I just bought it back at auction. Bill is wonderful and now is a very well known rawhide braider.
Yes, his work is hanging across from his portrait. … It’s a kind of braided harness-looking piece. The wall text calls it a “hackamore.” What is that?
Oh, this is beautiful. A hackamore goes over a horse’s nose and then you wrap a mecate around it—which are those horsehair ropes that are hanging around the corner [of the gallery]. You wrap the mecate around here and you use one end for reins and then you stick the other end in your hands. That way if you have to get off the horse then you can leave the reins around the horn. If you have to doctor a calf, you still have a connection to the horse if it tries to bolt. A hackamore is an important part of horse training. I take it you’re not a horse woman.
I’m not. I wish I was!
So this here is Toni Schutte. Her husband’s portrait is right around the corner. She’s a wonderful painter and she’s the only woman [portrait] here. I did this painting many years ago, 30 years ago and she ended up giving me that hat in the painting. I think she worked on something in the exhibit but I’m not sure.
In these paintings that have brown backgrounds, are you starting with a painted background, or is this a tan ground like Arches paper that you work on top of?
This is handmade. Arches is machine made. This is this is the best watercolor paper you can get because you really start with a big tray full of a kind of soup, which is a mixture of water and fibers and you collect them on a screen, an inch of these fibers with a border all the way around. And then you take that and you press a lot of the water out. You hang the sheets up in a barn and they air dry.
Where is the paper made?
Brookston, Indiana. It’s a little farm and the name of the company is Twinrocker. It’s a really cool paper-making company. It’s the best watercolor paper made in America. The absorption is really good. The woman who started the company, Kathryn Clark, would fly out and stay with me and she would bring out sheets that they had made. And I’d paint on them and try them out and test their formulas. It’s made and actually named for me.
Can you talk to me about why you favor watercolor as a medium?
I love the fluidity. I love the brushstrokes. I love the light touch. They’re a Japanese influence for me, and I am very much interested in Asian art. I’ve always loved it. My mother was an oil painter but I always gravitated towards watercolor.
Would you paint with your mother?
I would mostly go off and paint, but we did paint some. My mother was oddly competitive with me and never really encouraged my painting. Which is OK. It kind of reinforced my interest in painting—the fact that nobody encouraged me.
You were a contrarian.
A complete contrarian. Never went to college. Never finished high school. You know, they assumed I’d be living under bridges.
Who is this a portrait of?
This is Jeremiah Watt. Jeremiah is an amazing craftsman and businessman. One of the first really interesting craftspeople that I ever met. He ended up building this saddle for [the Western Folklife Center]. Took him 30 years to build. But, you know, it’s an absolute masterpiece.
The man in this next portrait looks like he is in the act of making something.
This is Randy Stowell. Randy has done a lot of work, a lot of rawhide braiding. Do you know what that means?
Sort of. I watched the gallery video.
Yeah, Randy also works on a ranch and so he can build anything. [In this portrait] he is working on horseshoes. But over here are the rawhide reatas. Before nylon ropes everybody used rawhide rope – they’re much springier and they have a lot of play. It’s so special. It’s a special technique to make these rawhide reatas.
Have you gotten into any of this cowboy stuff because of the artists you’re in contact with? Like rawhide braiding or leatherwork or riding horses?
Yeah, I ride around. You can’t follow these guys if you can’t ride, right? I don’t ride much anymore. The other crafts…probably not. I’ve been building acoustic guitars lately. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.
This next portrait is of Larry Schutte. This is Toni Schutte’s husband?
Yes, this is the husband of Toni Schutte. Over on the other side of the wall, you’ll see Larry makes these horsehair macates. It’s spelled like ma-ca-te but people call it a ma-car-tay. They’re horsehair twisted into ropes that are about 22 to 25 feet long. These are the ones I was telling you about that you use as reins. And that’s something that’s done here, it’s really a Great Basin thing.
What is inspiring to you about the Great Basin? You’ve done a lot of Great Basin landscapes.
Yeah, I love painting landscapes but I do still lifes and I do figures, too. I’ve been painting the Great Basin for 40 years. It continues to change and be different and be free. I don’t know, I’ve kind of grown up in it so I know the area and the ranches really well. I’ve seen them painted over and over and over again. Different times of year, different times of day.
How long do your paintings normally take?
They can take a while. You know, there’s no real barometer. I would always say it takes all my life. The hard part is learning how to paint. Sometimes they take an hour, sometimes they take 40 hours. Sometimes you put 40 hours into it and you end up just tearing it up because it just isn’t good enough.
There is a lot of time in these, maybe some boredom too?
That’s the deal, right? There’s boredom in doing what you do, but you have to like it enough that you can tolerate that boredom, and I can tolerate this kind of boredom.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Cover image: Watercolor of Waddie Mitchell by William Matthews
For more information about the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and the Western Folklife Center’s Contemporary Cowboy Gear Collection, go to www.nationalcowboypoetrygathering.org.