All the Pretty Horses

The scenes in Wayne Baize’s drawings and paintings are rendered with so much self-restraint they’re nearly austere. A look at one of America’s most distinctive Western artists.
All the Pretty Horses
Photograph by Wyatt McSpadden

Most western artists play up the majesty of wide-open plains or soaring mountains. Wayne Baize strives for something different. His drawings and paintings typically offer modest portraits of animals, often surrounded by a mere suggestion of location. A Hereford calf, a pinto donkey, or a mare and colt might be framed by nothing more than a sprig of grama grass or a Spanish dagger. Even when the environment determines the composition—a scene of horses watering at a stock pond, for instance—the edges usually fade into the ether. His subjects seem to step out of a dream or a memory, speaking to viewers who once lived the ranching life, or still do, or wish they could have.

Baize is less a teller of stories than a ponderer of moments. Although he  has witnessed and photographed bucking horses and out-of-control livestock involved in wild wrecks, he doesn’t paint them. His fascination is with the exchange of a glance between animal and human, or the way two animals shoulder each other, or a horse’s muscling and structure. The subject of his 1981 acrylic and colored-pencil portrait Spring is an alert, bright-eyed calf, with long white eyelashes and a coat that’s a deep mahogany red, clean, fluffy, well licked, well fed, and perfectly proportioned. The drawing could be set anywhere or nowhere (heaven, maybe?), except that behind the calf, we can see a West Texas cholla—covered, of course, with idealized thorns and fuchsia blossoms, no grasshopper bites or shriveled segments in sight. The calf itself, radiating intense confidence, is already hustling up some grazing and taking the pressure off mama. 

There’s a certain amount of romanticization going on here and in most of Baize’s work. When a roped animal in one of his drawings is in a state of panic, the hands on the rope are in complete control. Of course, ranch life is seldom quite so perfect. Some years no rain falls, a hard freeze bursts miles of pipeline, or a calf’s mother develops cancer eye. But it’s difficult to paint, photograph, or write about cowboys without romanticizing. Perhaps only outlaw country music has come close to revealing the darker side of cowboy life—the cheating, drinking, and broken dreams. 

My art may be romanticized, but it has a grain of truth to it,” Baize says, sitting in his studio near Fort Davis. “It seems like the ongoing philosophy of the day is that the government needs to take care of you. And you’re entitled to it! Money is the ultimate goal in life. And then you look at the cowboy. The climate is sometimes harsh and unreliable, and success often depends upon persistence. The job doesn’t pay much, but the life that he lives and the pleasure that he gets out of God’s creation are enough. He recognizes the beauty and the blessings that can’t be bought with money and the freedom that you have when you take self-responsibility. When you don’t take responsibility, you don’t have freedom. 

To me the cowboy is nearly America personified, the part of America that I think has been so important in the development of our country. People who came west, they didn’t have any guarantees of success, just freedom. I guess what I hope my art would convey is the importance of the West, the lifestyle that we all love, and the part that the people in the livestock industry have played in making this country what it is.”

Baize, a fourth-generation Texan, is himself a product of that America. He was born in Stamford in 1943, the son of a stock farmer who enjoyed plowing with mules but didn’t like working the land so much after tractors came in. The family lived an hour or so north of Abilene and tried to grow cotton and maize during the fifties drought. Baize doesn’t remember them ever managing to produce a good crop. 

When Baize was twelve, he asked to take art lessons as a Christmas gift. “Mother said a coloring book was one of my favorite … toys, I guess you’d call it,” he says. “Drawing just always fascinated me, and of course I certainly didn’t know you could make a living at it.”

His interest was always in Western subjects, so his teacher, Sarah McDonald, showed him sketches that Frank Tenney Johnson, the great “Master of Moonlight” artist who often visited the nearby SMS ranches, had done for her. Baize was fascinated by Johnson’s method of tagging along with cowboys and the quiet feel of his studies. McDonald also introduced him to the work of probably the most famous Western artist of all time, Charles M. Russell. Baize was awed by Russell’s magnificent use of color and his ability to evoke action in a single frozen moment. Under McDonald’s guidance, Baize started with charcoal drawings and progressed into oils, but he preferred the refinement that pencils gave him. 

Eventually the Baize family sold their land and moved to a stock farm south of Abilene near Potosi, where Baize took lessons from Gene Swinson, a humble local art teacher who lived in Baird. (Swinson had a talent for sparking a deep interest in art; another of his former students is now the creative director of this magazine.)

This was in the early sixties,” explains Baize. “Western art was enjoying a renaissance, and the artists were establishing reputations in fine art. The Cowboy Artists of America organized in 1965. It seemed like I was at the right place at the right time. It amazes me.” 

Baize was also developing his own cowboy and horsemanship skills. “After I got out of high school, I helped my older brother Paige on the weekends, ranching and cowboying, farming, driving a tractor. I also worked in a feed store and lumberyard, but I had always envisioned a future working the land.” Later the family moved to Baird, where Baize and his brother Arlon began raising horses from the Doc Bar bloodline.

In the mid-sixties Baize caught a break when Gary Luskey, of Luskey’s Western Store in Abilene,

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