Long after I don’t care, somebody will look at my paintings and say, ‘You know what? He damn sure knew what he was painting.
At the heart of Donald M. Yena’s 3-by-5-foot oil Texas Trail to Rail Trails, a trail herd ambles into town. On the tracks, a 4-4-0 engine waits for rangy Texas Longhorns of every conceivable color to cross. One drover pauses between the rails with a tally book, while the rest of the crew herds the cattle into massive loading pens. Off in the distance, just discernable through the dust, are a windmill, a water tank and the town. In the lower right, the trail boss meets with a man in a spanking rig pulled by a nice pony—probably the buyer. Unused railroad ties, tin cans and trash lie scattered about, and as the tracks cross a prairie dog town, a furry onlooker or two watches the action.
“I never thought I was going to finish the damned thing,” Yena says in that deep Texas drawl, “but I did.”
Talk about your narrative style of painting. The canvas is one of several Yena plans to create depicting the Texas cattle business, big paintings that tell a story and show the West as it really was. The San Antonio–based artist stresses historical accuracy.
“That’s the way I do it,” Yena explains. “If you see a saddle or a gun, it’ll be the right one of the era. Everything will be just like it should be.”
He doesn’t have far to look to find the objects for his research, either. Usually, he’ll pick something out of his and his wife Louise’s personal collection of Western memorabilia, which includes badges, knives, guns and holsters, the latter of which, Yena says, “are harder to find than the actual guns.” He stresses historical accuracy in his art.
“I’m a real stickler for that,” he says. “Long after I don’t care, somebody will look at my paintings and say, ‘You know what? He damn sure knew what he was painting. I don’t know where he got it, but he had it.’”
Where he got it, Yena says, was growing up around the cattle business in Castroville, Texas, about 15 miles west of San Antonio in the historic Medina River Valley. Texas Ranger John Hays is said to have led Henri Castro and his colonists, most of who came from Alsace, France, to found the town in 1844. And south Texas certainly grew into cowboy country. “I was always playing cowboys and Indians,” he says, “and never got over it.”
That explains his interest in collecting the West. And art?
“I got in trouble in grade school for drawing and scribbling and carving up desks rather than learning how to read and write,” he says. “That’s a fact. My mother used to go and get me shoe boxes at the store because they had white paper on the side, and I would do my crayon work and drawing on that, because everything else had lines through it.
“My mother could sketch,” Yena recalls. “We didn’t have much money. My family moved out to Medina County when I was about 3 years old. I watched her sketch some of the old buildings around Castroville, some of the ruins. I can remember watching her. I don’t have anything she did, but I know she did. Maybe that was the beginning of it.”
After studying commercial art at a vocational high school in San Antonio and a stint in the Navy, Yena broke into the Western art field. He does not sell prints and is not represented by a gallery or agency, but he has been dealing on the private collector market for more years than he cares to remember.
About a dozen years ago, Yena sold much of his collection to the Witte Museum in San Antonio, but he has been rebuilding his personal collection since. “We usually convert most of our monetary assets back into our collections,” he says. “That’s why we’re broke all the time.”
So how would he prefer to be remembered—as a collector or as an artist? “Just a damn good Western artist,” he says. “That’s what I like to do. I paint ‘once upon a time in the West’ with authenticity.” ww
Donald Yena’s San Antonio studio is open only by appointment. Call 210-494-5371.