Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Don Crowley: "I just feel blessed that this whole thing came along."

Don Crowley was a child of the Great Depression. Perhaps the lingering memory of living in a state of desperate impoverishment, like so many others of his generation, compelled him to work as hard as he did thoughout the first decades of his career. Year after year Crowley patiently drew and painted one assignment after another.  But in the early 1970s, as Crowley reached his mid-40s, he also reached a point many illustrators must grapple with.  A point when the work no longer holds any challenge... when one assignment blends into the next, and the passion to make pictures disappears and becomes instead a chore.  Crowley had survived the demise of the Cooper studio with his career intact He'd made it through the '60s - a realistic painter in an age of stylized illustration.  After twenty-plus years of what was beginning to feel like a relentless grind (in all those years, Don had rarely ever even taken a weekend off) Crowley began to wonder; could he keep this up for another twenty (or more) years?


Then two things happened almost in tandem that profoundly affected Don Crowley's life. The first was his attendance at the opening of a gallery show of western paintings by one of Don's old friends from the Cooper days, James Bama. Don was enthralled by Bama's new work - even buying a piece from the show. Don said, "Jim Bama's show in '72 was the thing that really, really inspired me. The show was unbelievable. I figured if I could do that kind of work I wouldn't ever ask for anything else."

Following soon after the Bama show (by coincidence or fate) Don received a visit from an old Art Center chum, Sam Wisnom. Remembering that time, Don said, "Sam visited me in Connecticut. He was opening a gallery in Tucson featuring western art... and that sounded kind of intriguing. So I sent out a couple of paintings and he sold one. And it really sounded like it might be a new direction for me, so I made a trip out and stayed a couple of weeks, did some sketches and research."

But more than that, what Don did... was fall in love with the place.


At first, Don continued to do some commercial work. He hung onto good clients like Reader's Digest while he navigated the bumps in the road to becoming a full-time gallery painter. And there were bumps; Sam Wisnom's gallery closed just a year after opening, and Don had to deal with the anxiety of letting go of his commercial art safety net. But the magic of the South West had captivated Don Crowley. In 1974 he and B.J. moved the family to Tucson and never looked back.


Not long after the move Don visited the San Carlos Indian Reservation. It was, for him, an epiphany. Don returned to San Carlos often, always respectful and grateful that his hosts were allowing an outsider to observe their daily routines. That place and those people so inspired Don that even the most mundane activities of the resident Indians were transformed into works of art when Don set brush to canvas.


In the book of his art, Desert Dreams, Don said, "When I was growing up the only thing I knew about Indians came from movies and magazines. It was all unrelentingly negative and simplistic. As an adult I came to realize that these were a people forced to the brink of extinction and that their story was a true tragedy. I have learned to care about their customs and traditions, and I am drawn to the substance of their everyday life and to the solemn beauty of their sacred ceremonies. The essence of Indian life is essential to my art."


As we were finishing up our conversation on the phone, I said to Don, "So you must feel very fortunate that you found something out there that has been both financially stable and artistically rewarding." He replied "Absolutely. I just feel blessed that this whole thing came along."


"We've been out here thirty years," Don said, "and I've made a good living at it ever since."

* All of today's images are from the Greenwich Workshop Press book, "Desert Dreams" by Don Hegpeth and Don Crowley © 2003

For more of Don's work visit doncrowley.com


  1. Leif,

    THIS is why I enjoy your blog. Wow! Mr. Crowley is fantastic! I'm inspired by the American Southwest myself, so his paintings are truly wonderful. Thank you so much! And now to hunt down a copy of 'Desert Dreams'...


  2. Wow, now that's what I call a ringing endorsement. Many thanks, Adrian - your comment means a lot to me. Inspiring readers with the work (and stories) I present is what its all about - mission accomplished, eh? Awesome :^)

  3. wow!!!! super-giper-mega realism ))))))fantastic works! Thanks for post Leif!

  4. All this great stuff here!
    Slightly off-topic:
    The floorboards are bending in the bookshops presently presenting all those calandars for the coming year!
    Looking at one of the displays I noticed one example dubbed "Lounge Art"; it had an illustrative character and the designs were done by one and the same artist.
    But the qualitiy of the illustrations looked rather mediocre and somewhat boring to me.

    "I miss a Today's Inspiration calendar!" was my first thought. To turn the pages of such an almanach - derived from TI's vast pool - would be an experience. And it would sell; no doubt about that!

  5. Charlie Allen6:55 PM

    I second Rich's idea....though it would involve all kinds of copyright probs. Great series, Leif, on Crowley. Many illustrators headed for the 'genre art'....wildlife, southwest scenes. cowboys and Indians, historical, maritime, hunting, airplanes, African animals and scenes, etc. In all of those categories there have been some truly outstanding paintings and art. Thanks again.

  6. Lovely, inspiring, wonderful stuff. It's the sort of piece that is so good that I have to read out loud to my wife.

  7. Thank you all for your very kind words!

    Rich; I love the idea of a Today's Inspiration calendar... I'll sincerely put my brain to the task of making something like that a reality. With today's 'print-on-demand' technology, it should be possible to make something like that happen, shouldn't it. I think getting permission to use the visuals in a for-profit venture would be the biggest hurdle, but not insurmountable...

    Definitely worth pursuing further... :^)

  8. Michael; Thanks a million - you really made my day! :^)

  9. Yes Leif - a calendar probably won't be an easy task, copyright wise; but not insurmountable.

    One of those great Charlie Allen illustrations might be surmountable; as a start :-)

  10. Allen1:37 PM

    There was an an awful lot of bogus western art created in the 70s and 80s by former illustrators.Unfortunately Noel Sickles was one of them.A lot of it was pure cash in.