Blue Period

Art critics may roll their eyes, but that doesn’t slow down W. A. Slaughter, Texas’ leading bluebonnet painter.

To find Texas’ most famous living bluebonnet painter, you must first get on Dallas’ traffic-clogged Central Expressway, fight your way north past the LBJ Expressway, exit amid a cluster of auto dealerships and fast-food restaurants, and then head for an aging two-story cement-block building, where such enterprises as Xpress Carpets and the Dallas division of the United Steelworkers of America lease small gray suites.

If you head toward the back of the building, turning left just past the restrooms, you will come to a glass door covered by brown venetian blinds. On the door is a man’s name, “ W. A. Slaughter,” printed in simple white lettering. Upon opening the door, you will see carpet the color of dried blood, a burgundy La-Z-Boy, a brown desk and chair, and a window that offers a sweeping view of a parking lot and prefabricated storage sheds that can be rented by the month. Take two steps forward and you will see the man whose name is on the door bent forward in a chair in the adjoining room, dabbing with a paintbrush at a canvas propped on a wooden easel. In the drabness of far north Dallas, 73-year-old W. A. Slaughter is at work on another Texas Hill Country landscape, where the sky is always light blue, the clouds are fleecy, the land is light blue, the clouds are fleecy, the land is bathed in sunshine, and the hillsides are forever blanketed with the purplish-blue heads of bluebonnets.

One of the most scorned endeavors in all of art, the butt of jokes among museum curators and art-school-trained contemporary painters, the bluebonnet painting remains a permanent fixture of Texas life, as unyielding as a West Texas mesquite tree. For every serious collector who is searching for an available Picasso, there are at least a dozen people in Texas looking for a good bluebonnet—and no bluebonnet painter alive is in greater demand than Slaughter, an unimposing former Lutheran minister who often shows up at his studio wearing an old-fashioned string tie and a purplish nylon windbreaker commemorating the 1994 Super Bowl in Atlanta. “These aren’t really artist clothes, are they?” Slaughter asks me in a gentle voice, his eyes blinking behind his glasses. “Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t know what an artist is supposed to look like.”

His thousands of fans do not care how he looks. Nor do they care that he comes up with ideas for his bluebonnet paintings while lounging in his La-Z-Boy, looking through his office window at the parking lot. Nor, apparently, does it matter to Slaughter’s collectors that he rarely has time to even see real bluebonnets. Because the galleries that represent him hold their shows of his newest work in the summer, Slaughter is under such a tight spring deadline to finish his paintings that he can’t take a long weekend off to drive through the Hill Country when the bluebonnets are blooming.

Still, he produces at least 100 bluebonnet paintings a year—if he is in a hurry, he says, he can complete one in two and a half days—and to the consternation of the avant-garde gallery owners who consider his work little more than calendar art, he sells everything he paints. His annual June show at Dallas’ Southwest Gallery, where he introduces 30 new paintings, draws up to five hundred people. He sells another 15 at a show each year in Salado, and his annual August show at Simic New Renaissance Gallery in chic Carmel, California, for which he produces at least 35 paintings, is almost always a sellout. “We represent more than one hundred and twenty top artists,” says Patricia Terwilliger, Simic’s director, “and year after year, Slaughter is one of our top-ten-selling artists. We think of August as Slaughter month in Carmel because tourists on summer vacation from all over the world pour into our gallery and stare in delight at these paintings.” Terwilliger is now selling Slaughter bluebonnets in her galleries in Beverly Hills, La Jolla, and San Francisco. He is in such hot demand in California that she can get $8,000 for a standard 24- by 36-inch Slaughter bluebonnet. In Texas the same painting will sell for around $5,000.

How can the basic bluebonnet painting, a tired cliché in art circles, continue to draw such interest—and such prices? Slaughter, for one, admits he is amazed by his own popularity. “I know my paintings aren’t going to be hung in museums or win juried shows,” he says, musing from his La-Z-Boy. “Great Scott, I’m not what you’d call a big-time artist. I’ve never even taken any art lessons.” In fact, Slaughter took up painting as a hobby in the mid-sixties to relieve the stress of running a church. “I don’t know why I started doing bluebonnets. I suppose there is just something so appealing about a field of blue.”

Ah, that great field of blue. As far back as the 1800’s, artists were inspired by the Texas bluebonnet. The male artists who came to Texas initially concentrated on frontier and cowboy scenes. Painting bluebonnets was left mostly to wives with time on their hands. Nannie Huddle, the wife of an Austin portrait painter, is reputed to be the state’s first noted bluebonnet-landscape painter: In one of her early works she depicted fields of bluebonnets in front of the state capitol. In 1901, when the Legislature was furiously debating whether the cotton boll, the prickly pear cactus flower, or the bluebonnet should be the official state flower, a group of women stormed the House chamber, one of them holding a still life of bluebonnets in a vase that had been executed by one Miss Mode Walker of Austin. According to an account of the proceedings, the painting caused the legislators to burst into “deafening applause” that “fairly shook the old walls,” and soon afterward the bluebonnet was adopted as the state flower.

The person most responsible for Texans’ obsession with bluebonnet paintings, however, was an artist named Julian Onderdonk, whose father, San Antonio painter Robert Onderdonk, had made

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