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