Ol’ Max Evans Tells Literary Stories in Paintings and Drawings

By Johnny D. Boggs
6/1/2008 • Buffalo Soldiers, Wild West

Four numbered artist prints, crisply told in stark black-and-white from the watercolor and ink originals created more than a half-century ago, tell the story of the working cowboy’s West — at least, Max Evans’s vision of the working cowboy’s West.

And few, if any, have ever argued with Max Evans’s vision.

Today, he’s best-known as a writer, author of The Rounders and The Hi Lo Country (both turned into critically acclaimed movies), the irascible rapscallion who once broke director Sam Peckinpah’s ankle — “I was trying to break his neck.” — (Evans had a small role in Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue), winner of multiple Spur Awards, multiple Western Heritage Wrangler Awards and the 1990 Levi Strauss Saddleman Award for lifetime achievement in Western literature. He’s also the subject of Slim Randles’ biography, Ol’ Max Evans: The First Thousand Years.

During ten centuries of living (in Max Evans years), he has done it all: working cowboy, soldier (he hit Omaha Beach on June 7, 1944), miner, actor, mystic, but mostly, writer. Yet before he became a literary icon, Evans was an artist in Taos, New Mexico. His knowledge of cowboys is quite evident in the numbered series of prints. Evans describes his creations:

Late For Supper: A weary cowhand rides to the bunkhouse in late night. “Working cowboys like this one because they know how that ol’ boy feels.”

In My Valley: A mystical city rises on a cowboy’s once-spartan ranchland. “That was a prediction I had 57 years ago: the building up all around the ranches. I had this vision of what was going to happen to the ranches.”

Look Out Ma!: A mare strains against barbed wire to eat hay during a snowstorm while her colt stands guard. “I actually saw this on my way from Taos. It was cold, and this late colt was just watching me, like he was protecting his mama.”

Bustin’ Drifts: A cowboy herds along a cow, all weary from being pounded by snow and wind. “I did a lot of this myself, cowboying on Glorieta Mesa and up in the Hi Lo Country,” the name he gave mostly northeastern New Mexico because of the landscape and a popular poker game.

Born in Ropes, Texas, in 1925, Evans arrived in Taos in 1949 with this vague idea of becoming an artist. “I don’t have any idea how I got interested in art,” he says. “As a little kid, I was always sketching or drawing something, but I’d had only three art lessons in my whole life.” He brought one painting, a World War II scene titled Normandy Night Fire. The expressionistic oil-on-canvas not only was accepted into a juried art show, it won the honored placement alongside several “Taos masters.”

Eventually, he met Potawatomi Indian artist Woody Crumbo, who became Evans’s mentor. Honing his craft, Evans learned to mix mediums and take chances, which he would also learn to do in his fiction.

It was Crumbo who told Evans to have some limited prints made of his work.

“I was barely selling, just had enough to starve on, and Woody told me if I went to see this master printer in Taos Pueblo and have some prints made, I could sell those as limited edition numbered prints and I could peddle those and that would help until I started to sell. And he was exactly right.”

The prints still sell. A recent set went for $1,000 at an auction in Cimarron, New Mexico.

“Of course, I was so naive, I think I sold the first 150 without any numbers on them,” he says. “I started numbering them at 151.”

Other paintings followed. Working cowboy scenes such as Moment of Truth, painted with a pallet knife, and a painting of his story One-Eyed Sky, which “I traded for a bunch of worthless mining stock.” He did landscapes such as The Lonesome Land, The Lonely Place, and The Edge of Taos. But mostly, nocturnal scenes that became his trademark, such as Meeting by Moonlight and Ghost Rider in a Ghost Town.

“I like the night,” Evans says. “I like moon shadows. There’s a mystery in it, a wonder in the moon shadows. And some of the greatest fun I’ve ever had has been in the moon shadows.”

Eventually, Evans’s literary career took off, and he put aside the pallet knife, the oils, the watercolors. “I chose writing, and I’m glad I did,” he says. “There were stories already eating at me, that I knew I had to write.”

Stories like My Pardner, Shadow of Thunder, Xavier’s Folly, Bluefeather Fellini, and — his one historical novel — Faraway Blue, about buffalo soldiers pursuing the legendary Apache Nana.

Yet now, Evans is returning to painting. “I want to concentrate on short stories, which has always been my first love, and articles, and painting,” he says. “There are a lot of similarities in painting and writing. You’re telling some story of yourself. ‘Here’s the way the sun shines off a bluff or a cloud in my vision.’ Those kinds of stories don’t have to have plots. They’re complete within themselves. I’m just thankful I’m going to get another crack at (painting) 1021 years later.”

Some of Evans’s drawings and paintings have been printed in Slim Randles’ biography, Ol’ Max Evans: The First Thousand Years, as well as Evans’ collection of articles, essays and fiction, For the Love of a Horse, both published by the University of New Mexico Press.