Blue Period

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

March 1997By Comments

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 a name for himself with such epic works as The Fall of the Alamo, in which Davy Crockett is about to pummel a Mexican soldier with the butt of his rifle (it now hangs in the Governor’s Mansion in Austin). Like his father, Julian got his training at art schools in New York. When the young man returned to Texas in 1909, he decided to apply the newly popular French impressionistic style of painting to Texas landscapes, using a fusion of dreamy color, putting a haze over the hills, adding streaks of pink and gray to the sky, and blending in a glorious field of bluebonnets across a valley.

“Julian Onderdonk’s splendid Impressionist rendition of a bluebonnet field in 1912 was a new kind of out-of-doors art for Texans,” wrote William H. Goetzmann, the Pulitzer prize–winning professor of American history at the University of Texas at Austin, in his introduction to Art for History’s Sake, by Cecilia Steinfeldt. Indeed, Onderdonk did for bluebonnets what Monet did for water lilies. There was such a clamoring for his work that “he ended up painting bluebonnets by the mile,” says Steinfeldt, also the author of a well-regarded book on the Onderdonks and the curator emeritus of San Antonio’s Witte Museum. It wasn’t long before a horde of artists, described by one critic as “‘bluebonnet school’ Sunday painters,” showed up in Texas. Even more turned to bluebonnets when oilman Edgar B. Davis hit a gusher beneath a field of Texas wildflowers and celebrated by setting up what he called the Texas Wildflower Painting Competition in 1927, handing out a stunning $65,000 in prize money over three years.

Although the elitists in the Texas art world quickly lamented the bluebonnet genre—before Onderdonk died in 1922 at the age of forty, he openly regretted his public reputation as a bluebonnet painter—ordinary Texans were thrilled by the paintings. “It became a tradition in San Antonio for people to buy little bluebonnet paintings and give them as wedding gifts,” Steinfeldt says. One of the state’s most famous post-Onderdonk bluebonnet artists was Robert Wood, who moved from England to the Hill Country in 1932. He would do his paintings, start to finish, inside a window of Joske’s department store in downtown San Antonio and sell them on the spot. He quickly got bored with bluebonnets, but sales were so good that he hired a young, self-trained painter named Porfirio Salinas to add the bluebonnets after he had done the landscape portion of a painting, paying Salinas $5 for every canvas he completed.

Wood eventually moved to California to escape the bluebonnet madness, leaving Salinas as the state’s dominant bluebonnet painter in the forties and fifties, the favorite of politicians like Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, who hung a huge Salinas painting in his private dining room at the U.S. capitol. When Lyndon Johnson became president, he chose three Salinas bluebonnet paintings for his White House bedroom and two smaller ones for the adjacent study. Yet the bluebonnets took their toll even on Salinas. By the sixties, at the height of his popularity, according to one associate, he had become “an alcoholic lush of the first order.” His upstairs studio in downtown San Antonio was a raucous place, filled with booze, broads, and bluebonnet landscapes. When asked to comment on Salinas’ later work, the elegant Cecilia Steinfeldt said simply, “Oh, dear.”

After Salinas’ death, in 1973, bluebonnet painting went into a decline. Bluebonnet landscapes still brought amazing prices (today a 24- by 36-inch Onderdonk fetches up to $85,000, while a Salinas on wood sells for $10,000 to $15,000). But perhaps because it took a hardy soul to return to the same subject over and over without going stark raving mad, there were not as many artists willing to take up the bluebonnet mantle. One of the state’s best bluebonnet painters, G. Harvey, turned to cowboy paintings (see “The Quickest Draw in the West,” October 1990). Dalhart Windberg, whose bluebonnet prints used to hang in just about every dentist’s office in the state, moved on to paint everything from National Park scenes to pictures of turn-of-the-century railroad trains.

Enter the humble Lutheran pastor W. A. “Bill” Slaughter. When he was a boy growing up in San Antonio, his artwork consisted of drawings of airplanes and a couple of old girlfriends. Although he never considered a career in art, he became an accomplished weekend painter (“Only on Saturdays, never on Sundays,” he points out), and the members of his congregation at King of Glory Lutheran Church in North Dallas began asking if he would sell any of his paintings. He would and he did—for $75. “You could say I had a built-in clientele,” Slaughter says with a shrug and a glance toward the ceiling, as if to acknowledge that he had been blessed by God.

He discovered bluebonnets during church retreats to the Hill Country, and in 1968 he exhibited a couple of his bluebonnet paintings at a Dallas shopping mall. Gene Carmack, who owns Southwest Gallery, took one look at them and, he says, “I knew I had found the next star.” Carmack held a small show for Slaughter at a Dallas country club, and a group of women playing bingo in the next room came in and bought 25 of his paintings. His popularity soared so quickly that he retired from the ministry in 1971 at the age of 49 to paint full-time. “I don’t want you to think I disliked the ministry,” Slaughter explains, “but I kept hearing another call—to go into art and try to convey the beauty that the Lord has given this world. My congregation understood. Besides, they were happy to keep ordering more paintings from me.”

For better or worse, what distinguishes Slaughter’s paintings from Onderdonk’s, Wood’s, and Salinas’ is a boldness of color—“Rock ’em, sock ’em color,” says Shirley Elrod of San Antonio’s NanEtte Richardson Fine Art Gallery, which receives half a dozen new bluebonnet paintings a year from Slaughter. “There’s nothing subdued about his bluebonnets.” While Onderdonk—who is perhaps the only bluebonnet painter whose work is respected by art historians—blended his bluebonnets so that you could not tell one from another, Slaughter likes to put hundreds of bluebonnets in a single painting, each one carefully rendered. That devotion to detail, combined with his sweeping hillsides, vast blue skies, bright sunlight, and huge oak trees (known among his followers as Slaughter oaks), has proved absolutely repulsive to some art lovers and irresistible to others. “I think his paintings make people feel happy and hopeful,” says Simic’s Terwilliger. “There’s a peace in his big landscapes.” Slaughter, never one to toot his own horn, offers another suggestion as to why the demand for his paintings has increased in the past decade. “These new homes that you see going up in suburbs like Plano are the size of small hotels,” he says. “It is as if more people are looking for bigger paintings to fill up their walls.”

Whether you like his work or not, you have to admire his output. Porfirio Salinas, even at the top of his game, was able to produce only 40 bluebonnet landscapes a year. Before diabetes and a heart condition slowed Slaughter down recently, he could knock out 250 paintings a year. “We’ll call him up and tell him that we have a client who is willing to pay for a Slaughter bluebonnet painting that has a windmill, a barn, and three oak trees in it, and Mr. Slaughter will sit down and do it,” says Elrod. People will send him a pretty photograph of the Hill Country and ask him to come up with a similar painting. Slaughter has painted bluebonnets lining country roads, bluebonnets surrounding a church, bluebonnets waving next to a creek, and bluebonnets surrounding cattle. He’s the artistic equivalent of that guy in Forrest Gump who has about a hundred different ways to fix shrimp.

It’s clear that Slaughter prefers the bluebonnets of his imagination to the bluebonnets of real life. When I ask why he doesn’t move to the Hill Country to live among the flowers that have made him famous, he says, “I don’t care for that quiet Hill Country life. I’m not a country boy. I like being around the city.” Well, has he ever considered taking his easel down to the Hill Country and painting outdoors like Julian Onderdonk did? “Oh, no,” he says matter-of-factly. “The wind blows, and you have to fight off ticks and mosquitoes. I suppose I like my office.”

And just like the minister he once was, he remains committed to his second calling, serving those who want a pretty picture on their wall. He arrives at his office every morning punctually at eight-thirty and paints till four-thirty. When he heads home, he usually has a canvas under his arm, and after dinner with his wife, Evelyn, he heads to a spare bedroom to continue painting. “I’ve gotten arthritis in my fingers from my years of painting bluebonnets, and I’ve been having to wear trifocals to prevent my eyes from straining,” Slaughter says. “I can get a headache if I paint too many bluebonnets. But I’ve still got the compulsion. The Apostle Paul said, ‘Woe is me if I do not preach.’ For me, it’s ‘Woe is me if I do not paint.’”

W. A. Slaughter looks one more time at the ceiling, then he stands up to shake my hand good-bye. Just before the glass door with the brown venetian blinds finally closes, I see him heading for his easel, where a freshly painted landscape awaits a field of bluebonnets.

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