Share This Article

‘I wanted to grow up to be an Indian but found out that was a job I couldn’t get’

In Roy Andersen’s The Medicine Pony a Crow warrior stands in front of his white pony, holding a horse dance stick after a late afternoon rain. The man gazes toward the horizon while two other Indians wait behind him on their mounts. Painted on the white pony’s neck are symbols of dragonflies, which to the Crow people were messengers from the spirit world that carried dreams to individual warriors. “I was pretty proud of the piece,” Andersen, 82, says from his studio in Kerrville, Texas. “Some of them you struggle through, and sometimes they just paint themselves. Those are the ones that are really fun. This one went along the way I wanted.”

Authenticity is a hallmark of Andersen’s work. “I always like to try to get a little weather in my paintings,” he says of the sinking sun and afternoon rain in The Medicine Pony. The model for the white horse was a saddle horse Andersen used to own. He still uses the paint horses he raises as models. “I don’t know how many I have,” he admits. “I guess 25 or so.” Andersen also bought two longhorn steers to serve as models. “They’re pretty much pets,” he says. “I call them Gus and Woodrow, after [the characters in] Lonesome Dove.”

Growing up on a New Hampshire apple farm, Andersen had dreams of his own: “I wanted to grow up to be an Indian,” he says, “but found out that was a job I couldn’t get.” Another dream was to be an artist. “Nobody in my family had ever been that, and my parents said, ‘If that’s what he wants to be, well, we’ll try to help him.’ My father thought that I wasn’t strong enough to be a farmer and certainly not smart enough to be a carpenter, so if I wanted to be a painter, that was all right.”

Andersen studied at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and the Art Center School of Los Angeles, then became a professional illustrator, his work gracing National Geographic, Time and Sports Illustrated, as well as movie posters. His favorite poster was for Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). “My wife was my agent then—she still is,” Andersen says. “I always told her that was my favorite job she ever got me.”

Living on the East Coast might have been good for a magazine illustrator, but Andersen’s heart belonged out West. “I was about 15 when I discovered The Field Museum in Chicago had all these cases of Indian artifacts,” he says. “I’d go down there drawing and sketching. I don’t know why, but I was always fascinated. My family’s all from Denmark, and my mother’s brother was the first to come over. His first job in the United States was a cowboy in Nebraska.”

Eventually, Andersen moved to Arizona, first Sedona—“The sunlight bouncing off those red rocks will screw a painting up faster than anything,” the painter recalls —and then Cave Creek. But the climate was hard on the horses he raises, so he moved to Kerrville. That was about 12 years ago.

Typically, Andersen will work on two or three paintings at the same time. “One on the easel, and two half-started,” he says. His inspiration comes from various sources. “Sometimes [a painting will] cook for a while,” he says. “I have sketchbooks, and I’ll scribble in there. Sometimes it’s a landscape I’ve seen and think that would be neat. I have a ton of books here, and I try to go to every museum that has Indian artifacts. I’ve collected some of my own and have had replicas made; they don’t cost as much as the real thing.”

Andersen stresses the importance of good research. “I love to do research. I guess that’s one of the reasons I hit it off with Geographic. I did a few Indian things—the first men in America, the Anasazi, and a thing on the Mayans. Course, I did space things and dinosaurs and everything else. But the Indian stuff is my main stuff.”

To see more of Roy Andersen’s work visit the InSight Gallery of Fredericksburg, Texas.