Western artist Chuck DeHaan, 75, sits at the small table in the large bright kitchen, a percolator on the counter heating coffee, his gaze steady and direct, his voice quiet as he recalls a lifetime of love for horses, his work and his wife.
“Ever since I figured out pencils left tracks – since I was a little kid,” he says of when his love of art began. “I left home at 13 – it wasn’t because of anything bad. I figured there were a lot of bad horses in the world. I could ride them.”
DeHaan, who has won enough awards for his art to make any Olympic medalist jealous, says he competed in rodeos at a young age.
“I wasn’t that good a bronc rider,” he recalls, adding that his rodeo days were during the time of such riders as Casey Tibbs and Jim Shoulders. “I was training cutting and reining horses. After awhile, the art just kept increasing and increasing.”
He says he never had formal training as an artist.
“The point was, it made it harder for me,” he explains. “I wish I had gone to a good art school – I never was fortunate enough to go to any of them.
“Art school would have been good – teaching me discipline.”
Instead, DeHaan said he studied everything he could – even the old masters.
“Norman Rockwell was my hero,” he recounts. “I used to study his work, I studied the old Saturday Evening Post covers.”
While he started making magazine cover illustrations, it was advertising where he worked for some 20 years. Knowing people in the horse business and affiliated fields, he got work with such companies as the Justin Boot Co. and Potts Longhorn Leather Co.
From there he began doing limited edition prints where his work has appeared with the Franklin Mint, Hamilton and the Bradford Exchange.
He went with Craig Walker and Mike Herndon into Clearview Publishing – they wanted to print all his art, but circumstances changed everything. The company was dissolved and, not long after, his wife was diagnosed with a life-threatening disease.
“My wife took sick with cancer,” he says, “I told everyone she was No. 1. For two years, I did everything I could to help her. I’d do it all over again.”
Joy passed away in March 2008.
“We lost three youngsters through the years,” he says simply. “It’s hard to lose a youngster. Joy was really a loss.”
Since her passing, DeHaan has had to adjust his life to take care of all the things she had handled during their years together.
“I really miss her and that’s part of that.”
The sound of a bubbling percolator fades away He rises, takes out two cups and pours coffee. Outside the wind is howling from the north, a biting chill. Inside, the house is warm and snug. He sets the cups on the table, still remembering.
“I remember for years being at the studio at 4 or 5 in the morning and stay till 10 at night. Now I go down at 8 or 9 in the morning and I’m done by 5 or 5:30.”
His memories return to his early life.
“I cowboyed, rodeoed – whatever,” he says. “My art studio in those days was in my pickup – a ’53 Chevy.”
He has come a long way since those early days – receiving awards for his original art including the Golden Spur Award for Best Western Cover Art from the Western Writers of America in 1984; Western Artist of the Year, 1986, Midwest Art; Texas State Artist, 1986-87; Equine Artist of Distinction, 1995, North American Horseman’s Association; Cowboy Artist of the Year, 1998, Academy of Western Artists third annual Will Rogers Cowboy Awards; Best of Show, by The People’s Choice, 2000 Annual Academy of Western Artists; and American Cowboy Culture Award, Western Art, 2005.
He stands and takes the cups to the coffee pot where he refills both.
“I’d like to do more historical-type paintings – not cavalry, they’ve been overdone,” he says, returning to the table.
One project he is currently working on is a historical painting of Palo Pinto County’s (Texas) earliest residents – the Wichita Indians.
He recounts that the name Palo Pinto means “painted post.” While the story is that early Spaniards found painted posts along the Brazos River and Keechi Creek, there is no historical documentation that describes what was painted or what it was painted on.
“The Wichita Indians had done this,” he says.
On a recent trip to Hillsboro, he met two from the Wichita tribe who live at Anadarko, Okla., who have invited him to Anadarko to enable him to research the tribe and their traditions.
“This painting is going to be a historical piece,” he says. “I want to get it historically correct.
“This thing has been really intriguing to me,” he continues. “The thing I want to find out most, the patterns,”
The patterns are the tattoos the Wichita Indians wore.
“They were heavily tattooed,” he says. “The Comanches and Kiowas called them ‘tattoo face.’”
DeHaan says the tattoos were not for decoration – each tells a story.
There is also a book – one he published for children, Informative Western Coloring Book. Now in its second printing, he hopes to get more into the hands of children.
“I’m working on another one,” he says. “The first one didn’t go to kids. It went to teachers and artists. It’ll also have tips on training horses.
“I feel like, if a person wants to paint a horse, they need to know something about them.”
It is a short, but brisk, walk to the studio, a rock building behind his house. He opens the padlock on the old door, its paint peeling, showing multiple colors underneath. He raises an old-fashioned latch. The door swings open quietly. On the walls are some of his paintings, smaller images.
In the room where he works an easel stands, the painting thereon one of a pair of horses running from a prairie wildfire barely visible through smoke.
“This is just the undercoat,” he says.
Around the room are saddles, steer heads, a petrified buffalo skull, pistols and rifles. On a table are sketches for his Wichita Indian painting of the county’s early history.
“I work sometimes more on the drawing than the painting,” he says. “I learned from experience, if you don’t have it drawn right, it won’t work.”
From his awards and the demand for his work, he obviously learned the lesson well.
(This was written in December 2008. Since then Chuck has remarried.)