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"The Cowboy's Dream:" The Mythic Life and Art of Lon Megargee


From February 2nd through April 28th, 2002, the first retrospective exhibit of Arizona's best-known cowboy artist is being staged at Wickenburg's Desert Caballeros Western Museum. Entitled "The Cowboy's Dream:" The Mythic Life and Art of Lon Megargee, the show will encompass 80 works drawn from different periods of the artist's 50-year career.

While Megargee was born and raised in Philadelphia and spent many creative years in Los Angeles, he sought his identity via Arizona's Wild West. In many ways, his life was a classic western story of re-invention; for instance, in the late 1940s, Megargee insisted that his birthplace was Tombstone. In dress and behavior, this rangy, squint-eyed gent was an early version of the Marlboro Man, swaggering about in a ten-gallon hat and clutching the obligatory cigarette. (left: The Indian Drummer)

However, though Megargee may have started off as an eastern tenderfoot, his cowboy oeuvre wasn't drawn from casual observations. As a teenager, the wannabe buckaroo got his hands dirty taming wild horses and punching cattle at Tex Singleton's Bull Ranch in Wickenburg. No doubt the artist's creative juices were kept flowing by camping out with Native Americans, dealing poker in disreputable saloons, entertaining the crowds as an exhibition roper with a wild west show, and being kidnapped and held for ransom by Pancho Villa's troops in Mexico. Not to mention marrying and romancing a goodly number of females.

Described as either the "Southwest's Toulouse-Lautrec" for his ability to capture the gritty as well as the glamorous or a "Cowboy Expressionist" for his skill with a paintbrush, Megargee was the ideal chronicler of Arizona. -- an opinion that the artist obviously shared. When pitching Governor Hunt to do the famed Arizona State Capitol murals Megargee pointed out "I'm confident that I can do it better than anyone can because I know Arizona. Have lived in the big out-of-doors -- in her mountains and on her deserts -- nearly all of my life."

In other high-profile images -- the Stetson logo which is still reproduced inside hats manufactured by the company, the Santa Fe Railroad paintings, and the A-1 Beer posters - Megargee celebrates western themes that are part of the nation's popular culture even today. (It should come as no surprise that he was an art director for Paramount Studios and that his work appeared in pulp fiction magazines.)

"Both his illustrations and his paintings depicted some of the most powerful stereotypes of the West," points out Betsy Fahlman, Ph.D., author of the authoritative Megargee biography accompanying the exhibit. "Tales of adventure, chronicles of pioneer settlement, herds of cattle, wide, open spaces, galloping horses, picturesque landscape, and, of course, cowboys and Indians were his stock in trade."

All in all, the book and exhibition comprise a portfolio of visual images that encompasses vibrant glimpses of the old frontier and characters that are lusty and bold. What better tonic for these stressful times than to visit the world of Lon Megargee?

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