It’s Wyatt Earp as we think of him—defiant, steely, sporting that long coat and bushy mustache and holding a long-barreled Colt. Wyatt Earp Behind the O.K. Corral was a highlight among the gouache paintings Bob Boze Bell created in 1999 for a one-man show in Wickenburg, Arizona, on Old West outlaws and gunmen.
And he owes it all to his grandmother. “I’ve been obsessed with Wyatt Earp since I was 9 ,” Bell says. “I was watching the TV show [The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp], with Hugh O’Brian, with my grandmother, and she said, ‘Wyatt Earp was the biggest jerk that ever walked the West.’ And it stunned me that what was on the TV was perhaps not true.”
His grandmother came from a ranching family near Steins Pass in southwestern New Mexico, and around 1900 the Cowboy contingent of the Tombstone/O.K. Corral equation was still alive. “And they,” Bell says, “did not speak very highly of the Earps. That led to a lifelong search to find out the truth about Wyatt Earp, and as an artist I wanted to get his look right.”
Bell has always sought to get both the look and the history right. He has published and illustrated books on Earp, Billy the Kid, Doc Holliday and classic gunfights. Bell’s artwork and writing has appeared in Wild West, Arizona Highways, Playboy and National Lampoon. He appears often on the Encore Westerns channel, serves as a talking head on documentaries and since 1999 has been executive editor of True West. “All the artwork I run in the magazine,” he quips, “the magazine gets for free.”
Art, of course, had captured his imagination before his grandmother contradicted that popular 1950s vision of Wyatt Earp. He’s been drawing as long as he can remember, and even as a child he often drew cowboys and gunfighters with an eye to accuracy.
“I hate fakery of any kind,” he says. “I don’t like low-back saddles, Hollywood hats, batwing chaps, inaccurate vests. It drives me crazy.” So is he a historian or an artist?
“I would say I’m actually a cartoonist,” he says. “I don’t really consider myself a historian, because I have historian friends that apply a certain academic level that I don’t have, I don’t claim to have, I can’t claim. But I just want to know the truth for my own sense of me. So I share that, and it’s taken for what it’s worth. I think I’m dismissed by a lot of people for not being a real historian. But I don’t give a damn.”
Bell is actually more of a Billy the Kid fan than a Wyatt Earp fan, but his real heroes are artists Charles M. Russell, Frederic Remington and Norman Rockwell. “Those, to me, are the three big dogs,” Bell says. “No one has topped them.”
His own creative process begins with him rendering “gesture drawings” for about 15 minutes—“to get out the cobwebs and to also take out left-brain thinking.” Sometimes he’ll even draw upside down. “That bypasses the left side of the brain. The left side of the brain wants to be linear. My first goal is to capture that looseness.”
He loves scratchboard, pen and ink, and gouache, a form of watercolor. “I work on deadline constantly,” he explains, “and I can’t use oils, which is actually a medium I enjoy, because that takes too long to dry.
“Some of the best things I’ve ever done I’ve done on my lunch hour. And some of the worst things I’ve ever done I’ve spent three months on. You figure it out.”
Art, of course, will be here to stay. But where is Western history headed? Bell points to recent best-selling books from New York publishers on Billy the Kid (Michael Wallis’s Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride), Kit Carson (Hampton Sides’s Blood and Thunder), Comanche chief Quanah Parker (S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon), George Custer (James Donovan’s A Terrible Glory), Jesse James (Mark Lee Gardner’s Shot All to Hell) and, yes, Wyatt Earp (Jeff Guinn’s The Last Gunfight).
“I think we’ve seen at least three or four waves since I’ve been doing this—and I’ve been doing this for about 35 years,” Bell says. “I don’t think it’s going away. I think every generation can bring a new perspective on it, and I’m heartened for what I see as resurgence in Old West interest. I think we’re going to be talking about these guys for a very long time.”
And over the years he has learned this about Wyatt Earp: “My grandmother was right. He was a jerk and a pimp and a blowhard, but as one of his admirers said, ‘Damn it, all the bullet holes were in the front—I’ll give the old man that.’”