‘I was always fascinated with the Apaches and didn’t feel artists gave them any time, especially as individuals’
Soldier/writer John G. Bourke remembered Alchesay, a White Mountain Apache who earned a Medal of Honor in 1875 for his work with the U.S. Army, as “a perfect Adonis in figure, a mass of muscle and sinew of wonderful courage, great sagacity and as faithful as an Irish hound.” Artist Paul Sheldon couldn’t have put it any better. “He looked like something out of a novel or movie,” Sheldon says.
Drawn to the Apaches, Sheldon painted two acrylic portraits of the Apache scout, one of Alchesay (sometimes spelled Alchise) as a younger man (a 40-by-27 sold in 2003) and another as an older man (a 47-by-35 completed in 2008).
“I was always fascinated with the Apaches and didn’t feel artists gave them any time, especially as individuals,” Sheldon says. “Alchesay had many photos taken of him, as he was fairly photogenic and had a great story. You could almost use him as a model for Cochise, who had no photos. He seems to look a lot like the only drawing of Cochise and has similar bone structure as Naiche (or Nachise or Natchez), his son.”
Born in 1853, Alchesay joined the Indian Scouts in 1872 and, acting as an envoy from General George Crook, helped persuade Geronimo to surrender in 1885. After the Apache wars, Alchesay sought to improve conditions for his people, meeting with Presidents Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt and Warren G. Harding. He died on August 6, 1928, and was buried on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. Alchesay High School in Whiteriver, Ariz., is named after him.
“I’ve always loved the history and color of the Southwest and feel blessed to be able to do what I do,” Sheldon says.
The artist was 10 years old when his family moved from Iowa to Arizona in 1958, and he was immediately drawn to the state’s history and geography.
“It was like going to Mars, or at least to a Western TV show,” he recalls. “We used to drive around whenever we could in the family ’57 Chevy station wagon and matching 15-foot camper trailer to see all the beautiful and fascinating sites in Arizona and New Mexico. It was fun to imagine what it was like back whenever. We used to camp and hike at Cochise Stronghold in southeastern Arizona.”
He was also drawn to art. “Ted DeGrazia, who was good with color, was a big deal in Tucson then, and I went to his studio,” explains Sheldon. “So, I started painting in middle school at the age of 13, then had art every year in high school and got a painting scholarship to Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff in 1966.”
Many Western artists seem stuck in earth tones when they paint Western history, but Sheldon’s works are vibrant, alive, refreshing—a blend of, say, contemporary artist Carrie Fell and the late, legendary Maynard Dixon.
“During college, there were a lot of people doing abstracts and even psychedelic art, so I learned about ‘nonobjective’ painting and got some awards,” recalls Sheldon, whose works appear at The Max Gallery in Tucson and Cobalt Fine Arts Gallery in Tubac, Ariz.
“I was good at color first,” he says. “Later, during the ’70s, I saw artists using these bright colors in contemporary Western art. Mostly all were paintings of Indians and landscapes, like the work of Fritz Scholder, John Nieto and my high school friend Lawrence Lee. I thought, Why not try doing this with cowboys, too? And I had a niche, and I liked it. Surprisingly, so do the cowboys I’ve met.”
He also discovered a way to give his paintings a three-dimensional effect.
“This was a surprising side effect of simply trying to create depth in my paintings,” Sheldon says. “I was concerned that the simpler shapes and graphic-like style would cause my work to look too flat. So I used a combination of techniques, such as vibrating complementaries and warmer colors in the foregrounds against cooler colors and horizontal plains in the backgrounds.”
How he conducts research depends on the subject.
“I go to roundups, rodeos, rural areas, the library, old photo archives,” he says. “I have a picture ‘morgue’ I’ve been building on for 30 years in an old file cabinet. Even Google searches are helpful.”
His paintings are abstract in some ways, realistic in others and always bold. How does he describe it? Some kind of Expressionism, I suppose, but not abstracted,” he says. “Maybe ‘Fauvistic Contemporary Western Expressionism’ is good.”
To view more of Paul Sheldon’s work, visit his Web site.