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‘It became a very emotional thing. I started to do drawings of Billy the Kid. It haunted me’

For a Philadelphia native who had never seen the famed tintype of Billy the Kid until he was 59, Maurice Turetsky has become obsessed with New Mexico’s most famous outlaw, rendering Billy in bronze sculptures, painted steel cutouts, and acrylic and pastel paintings. Visit the Lincoln State Monument and you’ll find Turetsky’s pastel portraits of other figures from the Lincoln County War, which launched Billy the Kid into Western history. Step into Due West Gallery in Santa Fe, and chances are you’ll find a new piece depicting Billy.

Unlike many artists, however, Turetsky’s fascination with his subject isn’t just aesthetic or historical. It’s personal.

Turetsky’s son, Josh, was just shy of his 24th birthday in 1995 when struck by a car in Japan and killed. The elder Turetsky and his wife had planned on moving to New Mexico, and after much soul-searching they decided Josh would have wanted them to follow Turetsky’s dream of painting full-time. In 1995 they moved to Santa Fe. Soon after, on a trip to Tombstone, Ariz., Turetsky bought photographs of Western figures.

“The one picture that really caught my eye was that of Billy the Kid, and it’s the first time I’d ever seen the image,” Turetsky says. “When I took it back to my studio, I did a little series of drawings of maybe six outlaws. Billy was one of them.” Turetsky was working on a portrait of Billy when his daughter walked into his studio.

“That’s Josh,” she said after seeing her father’s painting.

“It never dawned on me,” he says. “It became a very emotional thing. I started to do drawings of Billy the Kid. It haunted me.” Turetsky found similarities between his son and Billy. “He was ambidextrous, quick-witted, almost the same age, killed in the middle of the night and didn’t even know it. All these things came over me. The last painting I did was the death scene of Billy the Kid, and I thought, ‘That’s the end.’ But then I went back to the theme of Billy the Kid. I’ve got some more ideas on Billy.”

Interest in art began in childhood for Turetsky, who graduated from Philadelphia’s Tyler School of Art. He studied under the dean, Boris Blai, who had been an assistant to Auguste Rodin. Turetsky’s first influences were Greek and French sculptors and French impressionists before he discovered the American Southwest. He worked in Detroit in the design and health fields before turning full-time artist in Santa Fe.

“He has almost this naiveté,” Due West Gallery owner Thom Ross says. “Art to me is something where you interpret something that we both know, and you can see something in it that the vast majority of people don’t see. It is a worthy subject of treatment.”

That’s what drew Turetsky to depict the players of the Lincoln County War: John Tunstall, Alexander and Susan McSween, Lawrence Murphy, James Dolan, George Peppin, Colonel Nathan Dudley, Sheriff William Brady, John Chisum. His paintings of 31 key players from that 1878 conflict are on display at Lincoln State Monument’s Anderson-Freeman Visitors Center.

“Each one of these characters has a story behind them,” Turetsky says, “and I decided to do the portraits of these characters and try to convey the emotional feeling that these people had.”

He does more than just Billy: Acrylic on aluminum cowboy hats. Southwestern scenes and landscapes. Sculptures of Indians (including busts of Geronimo and Chief Joseph).

“I started to think I’m going to do something with [George] Custer,” Turetsky says. “I tried to put my emotional feeling into Custer being a pompous ass. I want to go on and on. The remarkable thing that I’ve come away with is that I grew up in Philadelphia and was transplanted to Detroit, but none of this history is on the East Coast. It’s amazing. I’m totally blown away by the lack of knowledge. All you get, really, back east is pilgrims.”

To see more of Turetsky’s work visit his Web site.