‘I based it on an actual photograph of Deadwood in 1877, in the Chinese district’
The frontier settlement of Deadwood and its inhabitants have inspired many artists (not to mention novelists, historians, filmmakers and tourists) over the years. But you won’t find Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane or assorted gamblers and ne’er-do-wells in Mick B. Harrison’s painting of the legendary South Dakota mining town.
Instead, Deadwood Freight, a 24-by-40-inch oil on canvas, presents an unromantic view of the town in its 1870s heyday, centered on rain-soaked oxen and freighters that look as worn-out as the quagmire of a street. They would have to be exhausted after freighting fortune-seekers and supplies some 200 miles from Fort Pierre.
“I based it on an actual photograph of Deadwood in 1877, in the Chinese district,” Harrison says from his Belle Fourche, S.D., studio. “I got permission from the Adams Museum [in Deadwood] to use the photograph for background, and I changed everything that’s going on in the street. I took out what was in the picture and painted in the bull trains and everything, but the scene is actually how the buildings were.”
The painting is the final of a two-part series that commemorates the Fort Pierre–Deadwood Trail. Used from 1874 to 1908, the trail stretched along an old buffalo path from Fort Pierre, the nearest port on the Missouri, to Deadwood and was considered one of the shortest and easiest routes to the Black Hills. The Verendrye Museum in Fort Pierre commissioned Harrison to capture the Fort Pierre end of the trail on canvas. After finishing that one, titled Freight at First Light, he decided to depict the Deadwood end. History has always appealed to the locally raised artist.
“I grew up in South Dakota in an area that has tons of history,” says Harrison, 63. “Sitting Bull is buried where I came from, and I grew up with stories of the big cattle outfits from that country. I just got interested in it at a young age. And in Belle Fourche, there’s just tons of history here. It’s kind of natural for me. We just don’t run out of it here. It’s all over. I don’t hurt for things to do.”
Yet Harrison took a roundabout path to get back to his roots. “I did a bit of everything,” he says. “I tried college for about three months, and that didn’t work out too good, and then I wound up in the Army in Vietnam. Then I headed out to the West Coast, wandered around for a while, found a wife and eventually came back here.”
He worked and painted in Cody, Wyo., and Cottonwood, Ariz., and served as a staff artist for Rockwell International in Iowa before returning to South Dakota to paint full time. For 35 years he has enjoyed success as an artist, providing cover art and illustrations for such publications as Today’s Horse, Deadwood Magazine, Western Horseman, True West, Frontier Times, Old West and South Dakota, as well as designing the poster for Deadwood’s Days of ’76 Rodeo.
Harrison takes from a little as three days to as long as 10 years to complete each painting. “First an idea has to come,” he says, “and a lot of time I’ll mull that around in my mind for a while, figure out what I want to do and what I want to go after. Then I’ll do some research on the subject. Before I start any oil painting, I always do these colored pencil sketches to lay out how I want them, get some color issues worked out, then I’ll usually just paint directly onto the canvas, do a sketch on canvas from my colored pencil sketch….I try to stick to that drawing pretty close, because you can get yourself into a lot of trouble if you wander out too far, but I always leave room for adjustments.”
Harrison is a founding member of Artists of the Black Hills, which promotes area artists and galleries so that “when [tourists] come here to see Mount Rushmore, they can go see some art, too.”
The Old West Trail Foundation has awarded Harrison its William F. Cody Award for Art, and the Wyoming Art League has honored him with its Nick Eggenhofer Award for Western Art. Both the South Dakota Hall of Fame and the Center for Western Studies in Sioux Falls have named him artist of the year. Visit Harrison’s studio online at www.mickharrisonpaintings.com.