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Will James: The Hays Collection

June 27 - September 20, 2009


For the Will James fan, there's no better immersion experience than the Will James: The Hays Collection exhibition in the Foran Gallery at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum (PPHM). People who aren't familiar with Will James will find out this prolific writer and artists' life was all too short.

PPHM serves as the first stop on a national tour of the finest and most important private collection of Will James art and ephemera anywhere. From hand-written and illustrated letters to his Nevada State Prison mug shot, the depth of life in the man born Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault is illustrated, literally, by the art he left behind. (right: Will James portrait c 1924,  Edward S. Curtis Studio, Hollywood, signed, dated and inscribed to Carl Snook of Billings, MT. Image courtesy of The Hays Collection)

Although he was born in Quebec, Canada, in 1892, James dreamed of becoming a cowboy and began drawing at an early age on his mother's kitchen floor. At age 15 he went west, where he learned to cowboy. For several years he drifted and worked many job, and was even arrested for cattle rustling and sent to prison briefly.

James worked briefly as a stunt man in Hollywood where he was sought after for his skill at pulling a horse over backward. Several of James' pen and ink drawings in the exhibition reflect his experiences as a stunt man, including a sequence of a man and horse tumbling together down a hill while cameramen in the background catch the action on film. Another small caricature in the exhibition shows James turning down a $5,000 per week contract.

By 1923, James had begun submitting his drawings and stories to magazines, turning his books and art into his primary career. Generally he would used carbon pencil and occasionally pen and ink. While he did a few oil paintings, he relied almost completely on drawings.

James quickly wrote and illustrated four books published in the 1920s -- Cowboys North and South (1924), The Drifting Cowboy (1825), Smoky (1926) and Cow Country (1927) -- and became a celebrity. (left: Will James, Cowboy Steer Wrestler, 1922 oil on canvas.  Cover illustration for pulp magazine "Action Stories. The Hays Collection)

Putting his fame to use, James endorsed the Tom Brown model Stetson, in which he was most often photographed, as well as leather cowboy products from Connolly Brothers Saddlery in Billings, Montana. James promoted Connolly saddles and rode them exclusively the rest of his life. The exhibit contains many Connolly Brothers artifacts including a carbine scabbard, carved saddle bags, belt and holster batwing and wooly chaps, cowboy cuffs and a saddle.

He moved to a Montana ranch in 1927, his Rocking R, continuing to write, paint and draw, but even with remote and open spaces, the pressures of success proved too much. Already an alcoholic James died at the age of 50 in 1942.

An apologetic letter in the exhibit written by James reflects upon a drunken stupor while visiting friends with a wish to see them again in a proper state. James life was hard. The scenes portrayed by James mirrors his life in that very few of his pieces are of serene ranch living. Instead, most are focused on taming broncs, roping feral cattle, and the arduous nature of the cowboy life.

The handwritten letters and inscriptions in the exhibit from Will James show the personality of the man behind the art and stories. One such letter written to Charles Russell one year before Russell died shows the respect James had for the most famous cowboy artist of the time. Included in the letter is a sketch of a saddle and spurs covered in cobwebs. James illustrated his letters to friends. Even on a book inscribed to benefactor Ed Springer of CS Ranch, he drew a man trying to grab some wild flowers while falling off a bucking horse. In the inscription, James wrote about the horse in drawing, "he couldn't let you do anything you shouldn't like picking wild flowers for instance".

The Hays collection expands further into James' life than art and letters with a complete first edition set of James books, movie posters, lobby cards, photos, and a Smoky press kit for the 1966 film. A.P. Hays, who has studied and collected James' work for over 60 years, and his wife are honored to share their fine collection with the public.

The exhibition is slated to travel to the C. M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana, and the Booth Western Art Museum at Cartersville, Georgia. Other venues are in the works.

The exhibition continues through September 20, 2009.


(above: Will James, Smoky and Clint, c 1929 oil on canvas.  Cover illustration for "Smoky, the Cow Horse" classic edition 1929. The Hays Collection)


(above: Will James, And Rough is a Might Tame Name, 1928  Pencil illustration for "All in a Day's Riding. The Hays Collection)


(above: Will James, A Heeler in the Slack, 1929 oil on canvas.  Cover illustration for "The Cattleman" magazine. The Hays Collection)


Related events

In conjunction with Will James: The Hays Collection, the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum is hosting three events to discuss the many facets of the man.

On Saturday, August 1 at 10:00 am, Will James historian Steve Zimmer will present "The Cowboy View of Will James" using examples from the Hays Collection to discuss the modern day working cowboy attitudes toward the writings and art of the man. Zimmer also will discuss the authenticity and accuracy of not only the cowboy equipment and clothing depicted, but the validity of the subject matter as well.

West Texas A&M University professor Bonney MacDonald, Ph.D., lectures on "Cowboy in the Making: Will James and the Popular West" on September 8 at 5:30 pm. Among the questions to be addressed: what drew James West; what about horses and the West did he need to learn in his process of adaptation; what did he get right; and what has his legacy been? Will James wasn't born to the West and, yet, like a number of other seekers from the East, he became not only an accomplished hand but a writer and artist who helped invent the early 20th-century figure of the cowboy.

To cap the exhibit and events, PPHM will show the feature the 1966 movie Smoky September 19 at 1:30 pm. (right: 20th Century Fox's "Smoky", 1945 movie poster. Image courtesy of The Hays Collection)


Online catalogue

Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum provides viewing of an online catalogue for the exhibition on its Web site.


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