National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum

Oklahoma City, OK



The Brotherhood of Man: Tom Ryan and the Cowboys of the 6666 Ranch


Artists are visual chroniclers of history and heritage, and western artist, Tom Ryan, is one of the nation's master painters of cowboy culture. A retrospective of Ryan's works, "The Brotherhood of Man: Tom Ryan and the Cowboys of the 6666 Ranch," is on exhibit at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum October 13-December 31, 2001. The show features the largest grouping of Ryan's paintings ever assembled. In a first-time companion exhibition, 70 paintings and a collection of black and white photos will be displayed. The photos were taken by the artist in the 1960s during a gathering of the ranch's 24,000 head of cattle in a project referred to as "The Big Gather."

Ryan was born January 12, 1922, in Springfield, Illinois. He was one of nine children, six boys and three girls. His interest in art began in the first grade when he entered his drawing of a squirrel on a limb in a contest. A passion for drawing continued into adolescence, and during his tour in the U. S. Coast Guard, he frequently sketched portraits of his military comrades.
When he left the service, an article about N.C. Wyeth in Life magazine inspired him to pursue a career in art. Upon the recommendation of a friend, Russell Dickerson, who attended the American Academy of Art in Chicago, Ryan also was accepted into the prestigious school.

"I attended [the Academy] three years, day and night school," Ryan said. "When I jumped into it, I really jumped into it." He married Jacqueline Harvey, the daughter of a Springfield, Illinois doctor, and moved to New York City, where he continued his studies at the Art Students League. Ryan won a contest and his winning painting became the cover for western writer Ernest Haycox's novel, The Outlaw. During the next seven years, that win led to numerous cover illustrations for western novels.

In 1958 and 1959, as his interest in things historical grew, Ryan began making trips West. His paintings included trail drives and Longhorn steers. In the early 1960s, a work by Norman Rockwell and one by Ryan appeared in the same catalogue. Soon Ryan received a phone call from the art director at Brown and Bigelow, a calendar company, offering him an opportunity to do a contemporary cowboy painting. He spent three weeks on the 6666 Ranch in Guthrie, Texas and produced enough material to put together his first calendar for Brown and Bigelow. "I fell in love with the 6666 Ranch," Ryan said. "I also, from that time on, dropped my historical work -- the old-time trail drive, the Indian paintings, the buffalo paintings."

Ryan has dedicated his life to depicting the contemporary cowboy scene. He branched off from the typical historical episodes and scenes of the Old West depicted by Remington, Russell, Leigh, and Schreyvogel to concentrate on the lives and struggles of today's ranchers. Although Ryan knows his way around a horse and cattle, he says, "I'm not a cowboy. I'm a spectator watching cowboys. That's where I get my ideas from, watching them work."

Mood and light play an integral part in Ryan's work. He is a genius at communicating how his subjects look and feel: lonely, sweaty, dusty, exhausted, frightened, elated. And he is always cognizant of the weather, a cowboy's constant concern.

Painting in the heart of one of America's greatest ranching countries, Ryan carved out his own niche as an artist who knows his subjects intimately. "This is backbreaking, often dangerous work," Ryan says of cowboying. "And every single aspect of it has been painted."

Ryan is a past president of the Cowboy Artists of America in Kerrville, Texas, and his works have been published on the cover of many popular horse and art publications world wide such as Western Horseman, Art of the West, and Quarter Horse Journal.

His original oils are exhibited in several museums throughout the country, including the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City; Cowboy Artists of America Museum, Kerrville, Texas; American Quarter Horse Association Heritage Center and Museum, Amarillo, Texas; Ranching Heritage Association Museum, Lubbock, Texas; and Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Two of Ryan's most well-known paintings, Sharing an Apple and Sixty Years in the Saddle are on permanent display at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. His most recent chronicle of the West is now viewed daily by those traveling east on I-44 approaching the museum. Ryan was commissioned by the museum to design an image that would span the west facade of the building. He developed the concept of a remuda of horses moving north across the facility, led by a cowboy riding point and trailed by a cowboy riding drag. In June of 1996, the project was installed in five recessed sections, each 36 feet long and 14 feet high. The spectacular image, carved from a Styrofoam base and attached to the wall in layers
that give the work dimension, was then sealed with a polymer coating and painted with a textured polymer material.

Ryan has been honored many times during his lifetime. As early as 1973, Northland Press in Flagstaff, Arizona, published Tom Ryan: A Painter in Four Sixes Country, by Dean Krakel. His boot and hand print in cement can be found at the Cowboy Artists Museum in Kerrville. And in 1996, he was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award during ceremonies at the Prix de West Invitational Exhibition at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. When asked how he felt when he received the phone call announcing the honor, Ryan said, "I couldn't believe it. I love hearing the sound of it. But you know, something like that's a long time coming. I never expected it, and I guess that's why it made me feel so good."

A 44-page catalogue, authored by Susan Hallsten McGarry, is available in the Museum Store or online at The publication is illustrated with 40 color and 24 black and white images.

Tom Ryan and the Cowboys of the 6666 Ranch

essay segments from exhibition catalogue by Susan Hallsten McGarry


The Studio

In a Midland, Texas, neighborhood of 1970s ranch houses, Ryan's southwestern pueblo-styled residence stands out. Like its owner, the stucco building with sage-green vigas rises above its peers. It has a warm, soft-spoken stateliness, complemented by neatly pruned live oaks and the textures of yucca.

The heavy, antique entry door opens to a grand, high-ceilinged foyer. On this day in March 2001, a group of framed etchings, engravings and lithographs is stacked in a corner, having just returned from a road tour. They are but a fraction of the 400 works on paper that Ryan has collected, documenting 18th through early 20th century illustrators of the western frontier, from Karl Bodmer to Charlie Russell. Across the entry, a wall of bookcases in the living room contains leather-bound first-edition books illustrated by Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth. "As a kid, I had an insatiable interest in their swashbuckling illustrations," Ryan tells me. "In a sense they were my first art appreciation courses."

Down the hall, where a traditional still life by Ryan hangs on the wall, is the master bedroom, which has been converted to Ryan's studio. On a white carpet protected by plastic, covered with a couple of four-by-eight-foot Masonite sheets is his easel. Above it, two banks of warm and cool fluorescent lights illuminate a painting-in-process. "Electricity is more reliable than north light," Ryan quips. The canvas depicts a kneeling cowboy looking into afternoon sun with a young boy outlined in ink and covered with a few strokes of paint. Their horses stand patiently behind them. It is an idea called Spotting Cattle that Ryan has been contemplating for years.

Ryan's complicated palette of colors and shades of gray is lain out on glass to the right. A bottle of clove oil, which he uses to keep his paints wet, stands next to several wide-mouthed jars containing a variety of brushes. Rolls of toilet paper are stationed nearby to wipe them clean. "It doesn't pay to buy cheap toilet paper," he says with a laugh. Ryan would be seated in his wooden office chair, working on the painting, were it not for cataract surgery. The 79-year-old artist is finishing up ideas he conceived years earlier, all in anticipation of the retrospective at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.


Calm is also experienced in Night Horse, executed as both a finished drawing and a painting, which is common for many of Ryan's major works. The drawing shows only Old Rufus, age 18. Bathed in iridescent moonlight, his universe is defined by a twenty-foot tether and a patch of hay. Older horses were not made to work as hard as younger ones. And Old Rufus was designated for the early mooting task of gathering the remuda from their two-mile square pasture into the rope corral. The impenetrable stillness of the drawing is relieved by the addition of cowboys and a 6666 wagon in the painting. The carefully constructed lights and darks on the bedroll, the men's shirts and the horse suggest relaxed chatter before night's rest.

With only a few exceptions, among them, Moonlighters, Ryan's night paintings convey the Ideal of protection. You see it in Croton Pasture in May, where a mother cow and calf doze in a splendid field of yuccas. It is also present in Nestled which is a brilliant essay in close values. The repeated shapes of the dozing remuda atop the hill and the foliage embracing the house are comforting, as is the smoke and lighted window suggesting warmth and welcome.


As a student in New York, Ryan visited Wyeth Country in the Brandywine Valley, and from 1957 to 1965, he lived in rural New Tripoli, beneath the Blue Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania. Several of his early works, including Pioneer Home, suggest the starkness that permeates the works of Andrew Wyeth. Ryan's early fascination with man-made structures, such as this one, which is the "Old Hank Smith Home" in Bianco Canyon, between old Fort Griffin, Texas, and Fort Sumner, New Mexico, would fade as he got to know the outdoorsman of the 6666 Ranch.


As a Mother's Day gift, Ryan once presented his wife, Jacquie, with a sketch of a cowboy on horseback holding a bouquet of wildflowers. "While doing the sketch I recalled a camp cowboy on the Pitchfork Ranch who saddled up some evenings to visit a neighboring camp on the 6666 Ranch," says Ryan. "One thing lead to another, and I spoke to some older cowboys, who said when they were young they would occasionally go courting on horseback. The result was two pastels, Six Pack Saturday Night and Moonlit Trail."


About the Author:

Susan Hallsten McGarry received her master's degree in art history from the University of Minnesota in 1978. From 1979 to 1997, she was editor-in-chief of Southwest Art, a fine arts magazine focusing on the American West. Currently a freelance author and curator working from her home in Santa Fe, NM, McGarry is a consultant in McGarry Media Group, a media relations company. Her clients include the Plein-Air Painters of America. Among her books are: Spirit of the Wild Things: The Art of Sandy Scott (1998) and West of Camelot: The Art of Kenneth Riley (1993), Her museum exhibitions include "A Brush with Reality: Detailing the West in Contemporary Art," which was also a catalogue produced by the Desert Caballeros Western Museum, Wickenburg, AZ, (1998).

The above essay segments are reprinted with permission of the author.

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