AN INTERVIEW WITH CYRUS WALKER
Written by Kim Weeks from her interview with Cyrus Walker
While some artists’ love of The West manifests in sweeping landscapes or majestic animal portraits, Cyrus Walker is inspired by a romanticized notion of the historic West, and his work reflects his commercial art roots and a fondness for the simple, creative illustrations of pulp dime novels.
Cyrus has made a circuitous journey, both artistically and geographically, to reach his destination as a fine artist. Born in Vermont, Cyrus spent his boyhood days out East working with his uncle in his art and design company, which started him on the path toward a career in art.
“I got to meet with designers to see what they were up to, and it just bolstered my idea that … if you really liked drawing as a kid and you want to stick with it, there is a career that you can do if you happen to love art, and so I guess that’s when it all started,” he said.
Once he approached college age, though, Cyrus began thinking about a different career, but after a year in a small Maine liberal arts school, he decided it was not for him. His next step was a literal coin toss between studying art at Montana State University or going to the Maine Maritime Academy and becoming a boat captain. Though Bozeman won the toss, it would have to wait, because Cyrus applied for and was accepted to the National Outdoor Leadership School in Wyoming, which offers experience-based courses that include everything from immersive expeditions to classroom-based wilderness medicine.
“I did a semester with them and it was fantastic. It was three or four months out wandering around in the West and it really just opened my eyes and reaffirmed my decision to head out West, because it was just so different out here,” Cyrus said. “And so I went back to Vermont and packed up the van and drove out to Bozeman.”
Again, though, art would have to wait while he briefly studied snow science with thoughts of becoming an avalanche patrol officer. He also pursued his Montana residency, taking a few classes and working full-time.
“I got my Montana driver’s license and in-state tuition, and that’s when I finally applied for the art program [at Montana State] and got in,” he said. “So it was a long, convoluted road to actually go to an art school, but I got there eventually.”
But it wasn’t the months in the outdoors that sparked his love for Western art, it was a job at Bozeman’s East Main Trading Company he had while working toward his residency.
“Part of my job was to go to all of these different estate sales and acquire cool looking stuff, and then I had to refurbish a lot of things, and I also ran the cash register. But they had a great library, and I used to love just poring over the old books,” he said. “And occasionally I’d come across some old dime novels, pulp dime novels, and they had really great covers.”
Pulp novels were sensational, colorful, action-filled books, which were extremely popular in the 1920s – 1950s, and were so named because of the cheap, high-acid content paper on which they were published. Cyrus discovered that the artist for many of these iconic books was a man named A.R. Mitchell.
“Throughout all of his old Western books, even the corners of the pages, there were always these neat little thumbnail drawings, just contour drawings of little cowboy scenes. [It was] very C.M. Russell-esque. Just nice little sketches, and that stuck in the back of my brain” Cyrus said.
After he graduated MSU with his art degree, Cyrus stayed in Bozeman and opened a graphic design company, doing logos, branding and illustration, which included creating a series of retro rodeo posters. That project led him to investigate the genre further, seeking pointers from artists of that style and doing extensive research into the history of western art.
“Of course there was the fine art side, but there was this other side that included a lot more commercial work, a lot of dime novels and comic books. And I have always had an affinity for that kind of thing, just because I really like to illustrate and I’ve always liked drawing little comic book things. So it was cool to see western comic books in a style that I really enjoyed,” he said.
As he continued to serve his design clients, he began to draw and paint in the style of the artwork he had come to admire. And as he began to walk down this path, he received simple, sage advice from a valued mentor.
“He said, ‘Just keep painting.’ That’s it. Just three words. And I just kept doing that. And the more I kept painting, the more I stuck with it in between design projects. Make a painting. Design some more. Make some money. Keep painting,” he said.
Initially, Cyrus was not pleased with the quality of his work but then, he said, something “clicked.” He knew that he was very good at smaller illustrations, but he needed to figure out how to reproduce that style on a much larger scale.
“I studied a lot of Roy Lichtenstein’s work because he did something similar in the 70s, where he would take compositions of these little comic book squares and paint them very, very large on canvas,” Cyrus said. “The lines in the drawing no longer become a single point, a single mark on a page. It becomes this thicker object that you have to paint. [Lichtenstein] was fascinated by that, and I just liked his style.”
At the time, Cyrus was still studying the history of Western art and found that many artists were depicting a larger-than-life aspect of the cowboy and Western life. And that exciting and adventurous image is how many people viewed life in the West, based on what they had seen or read.
“A lot of folks back in the time were living back East, and one of the ways people could interact with the West was through consuming those old dime novels [which told and illustrated] great, fantastic stories,” he said. “I always liked that aspect of it because I come from a background in design and I believe in the power of the press and paper. And it was neat to see how you could take one single book or comic book and distribute it to the masses and it gains a following. And so I have always enjoyed that aspect of the West, so I stuck with that vein, instead of doing the more traditional Western art.”
Cyrus learned that during the Great Depression there was a movement toward Western art, much of which was funded by government grants, which romanticized the idea of the west and its history. And many of those works can still be found today in old public buildings.
“In my mind that’s when a big switch happened, from people painting things that they were seeing in front of them to people just painting their idea of what made the West so interesting. And I think that the same things happened with a lot of those comic books, too. It’s a more fantastic version of everything, which I find liberating as an artist. It allows me to create scenarios and scenes and characters that don’t really exist,” Cyrus said.
Cyrus calls his style of work a “careful balance of mythology and preservation” and takes full advantage of the freedom that it allows.
“I’m not limited to any sort of realism whatsoever. I could paint a pink horse. There is no pink horse in real life, but [this genre] still will allow me [to paint that]. Because of this particular style, I’m allowed to take these artistic liberties that I’ve enjoyed doing,” he said.
During the years he was going to school and working in Bozeman, Cyrus said he stopped by Montana Trails Gallery often to look at the art or just to chat with Steve and Maria.
“I really liked what they were doing with the place,” he said. “And it took many years for me to finally get to a point where it seemed it was right to ask them if I could show at the gallery, and they were gracious enough to take me on.”
Gallery director Maria Abad says though Cyrus’ work is based on historic research, it is a fresh and modern take on Western art, and complements other artists’ works at MTG.
“We love having Cyrus in our family of artists. His style is refreshing, and it attracts and appeals to a new generation of Western art enthusiasts,” Maria said. “We can’t wait to see what he does next.”
In fact, Cyrus said, while he wants to remain true to his basic principles as a Western artist, he would love to experiment with even more fantastic subject matter.
“I like that idea of mixing different mythologies. If you can think of the Western genre, or at least the portion of the West that is larger than life or mythological, then I would like to mix in different versions of it, maybe some Greek or Viking mythology mixed in,” he said.
In speaking with Cyrus, one discovers that his enthusiasm for Western art is infectious and he seems eager to broaden his body of work. With each painting he completes, Cyrus said he strives to spark that initial emotional reaction that viewers feel when they look at a piece they connect with.
“A lot of folks talk about how it reminds them of watching old Western TV shows with their dad or grandpa, and so I think it brings a bit of nostalgic feel to them,” he said. “I try to humanize the subject matter in the paintings, so that you can actually get some knee jerk emotional reaction right off the bat. That’s what we’re going for. You want that emotional connection.”
While fine art is his mainstay, Cyrus still takes on occasional clients through Cyrus Design Co., which features the tagline “Just Pluggin’ Away.” He shares his artwork generously on social media, and says he is eager to connect with art collectors and enthusiasts. It’s this earnest and down-to-earth attitude that makes Cyrus as approachable as he is original.
COPYRIGHT MONTANA TRAILS GALLERY, INC 2023