Central Texas artist creates from the age of cowboys and the world outside his window
By Elizabeth Starr
Photos By Travis Taylor
Driving north of Waco on Highway 6, it only takes about 30 minutes for the landscape to change dramatically. Flat fields give way to steep inclines of earth, and the road obediently twists and bends to fit the landscape. At about mile 35, a diminutive town named Clifton rests on both sides of the highway.
Nestled comfortably between the hills that surround Clifton is a ranch where a cowboy artist paints for a living and lives what he paints.
Bruce Greene’s studio is exactly where you’d imagine a Western painter would do his work. A cheery wood stove warms the room, the walls of which are stacked high with books on art and cowboy culture. The scents of oil paints and sawdust combine and produce a welcoming fragrance. Paintings and sketches stand in their frames, forming a little maze of walkways.
On the back wall of the studio, a large window opens to an unblemished view of the pasture to the north, framed on both sides with trees and brushy grass. This bewitching land suits Greene and his work well.
Many artists document scenes they observe, but not many cowboys paint and sculpt their interpretations of daily life on the range. This is what sets Bruce Greene apart from his contemporaries.
“What I’ve built my career on is the documentation of the contemporary cowboy life,” he explained. “I combine that cowboy experience with a whole other world, which is art. What I bring to the table is kind of this unusual mixture of two worlds.”
Greene certainly looks the part of a painter, sporting a green polka dot kerchief tied around his neck, cuffed jeans and a smock embroidered with his name near the left lapel. He didn’t always know whether he would end up here, peering through bifocal lenses at a canvas as he thoughtfully mixes paints with a long-handled brush.
Greene’s background in art began with parents who lovingly fostered his natural talent. One day, while visiting an aunt in San Antonio, the Greenes sat young Bruce before a French easel and “it was like a light turned on,” he remembers.
Though he’s been drawing and painting since before he could read and write, the Mesquite native was unaware at first where his talent would take him.
“I didn’t think you could make a living doing this,” Greene said, claiming that he only majored in art as a student at the University of Texas at Austin because he didn’t think he’d finish school studying anything else.
While at the university, Greene did rodeo portraits on commission. His cowboy paintings and drawings were not widely admired by his professors, however, he didn’t have much support for the style of art that he loved most.
“The thinking there was very abstract, and what I wanted to do was not popular with them,” says Greene.
Greene didn’t let these opinions obstruct his pursuit of a true passion. After graduating from UT, he continued making Western art. But he was married with a young child and was running out of ways to pay the bills. A friend told Greene about an art show happening on the square in Rockwall County, so Greene packed up some paintings and traveled to the show. He sold six pieces for $132.50 total, “but that bought groceries.”
After the show in Rockwall County, Greene felt he might be onto something. He began selling his pieces at art shows around the state until art buyers gradually realized the cowboy paintings were worth more than a hundred bucks apiece.
“By then, we’re talking about the ’80s,” Greene recalls. “The oil was good, and then it fell off, but my stuff was still so cheap at that point that I was able to stay with the business.”
The artist continued painting on commission into the late 1980s until he began to study at the Cowboy Artists of America Museum, taking every class they offered for seven years. Then, in 1993, Greene was elected to membership in the Cowboy Artists of America, a highly esteemed organization of Western artists dedicated to preserving the culture of cowboy art.
“That had a really huge impact on my career,” Greene says. “It’s very exclusive, and so it carries with it a brand that is recognizable in the art world. It has a tremendous impact on representational art in America in the last 50 years.”
Though Greene’s art mainly takes the form of paint on canvas, he also sculpts scenes of life on the range. However, one of his most famous pieces isn’t a sculpture of a cowboy on his horse, but a memorial for a devotee of America’s favorite pastime.
On July 7, 2011, Shannon Stone, a firefighter from Brownwood, fell 20 feet from the stands onto concrete during a Texas Rangers home game. Stone died later that day from injuries he sustained from the fall, the result of a failed attempt to catch a ball thrown into the crowd by former Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton.
Former Rangers CEO and President Nolan Ryan, a good friend of the Greene family, commissioned the Western artist to sculpt a piece to be unveiled at Stone’s memorial service.
“We had just had a death in the family, so [Ryan] thought we could work with the [Stone] family well. That was a huge concern for him to do that as gently as possible. But it was a tremendous honor and a very emotional project,” Greene said.
The sculpture depicts Stone and his young son, Cooper, grasping hands and walking together, no doubt discussing the highlights of a game they have just watched. A baseball glove covers Cooper’s right hand and he gazes adoringly up at his father. The bronze piece, titled “Rangers Fans,” is located at the entrance to the AT&T Ballpark in Arlington. In the aftermath of tragedy, Greene’s sculpture is a permanent tribute to a life that was lost.
Another of Greene’s works hits closer to home for the Waco and Baylor communities. In 1995, Baylor student body president Chase Palmer’s job was to find a senior class gift to the university. After brainstorming with fellow students, Palmer commissioned Greene to sculpt a tribute to the Immortal Ten, the group of basketball team members who were killed in a bus accident in 1927.
Greene’s sculpture clearly displays the personalities of each of the men who were lost in the accident. It’s a constant reminder to Baylor students and faculty that grief over a great loss often gives way to beautiful memories.
Greene’s ability to translate scenes of life into works of art is clearly not restricted by dimensions or by circumstances. Coming full circle from where he began as an artist, the twists and bends of Greene’s journey have led him to become one of the most well known Western artists in the country. Fittingly, this cowboy artist humbly credits all of his success to God.
“There’s no day that I don’t allow myself to show up to work. Some days you feel more confident and creative, but a lot of that to me is spiritual. It’s a matter of prayer and of confidence that this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
From election to the prestigious Cowboy Artists of America to taking on commissions by celebrities like Nolan Ryan, Greene has earned plenty of bragging rights. But it’s clear that the fame hasn’t gone to his head. This cowboy artist is still as down to earth as they come, and he’s always looking to further his knowledge.
“I keep a stack of books about knee-high next to my bed,” Greene said, stooping and holding a flattened palm near his knee, “because I’m determined to look at art every day that I think is on a higher level than my own.”
Greene’s willingness to expand his horizons defies a common belief he sees among critics of Western art.
“I think there’s a community of art people out there that would say that [cowboy art]’s old hat and all been done before,” Greene said. “I don’t agree with that.”
His paintings depict cowboys of today in their environments. Men in jeans and chaps sit astride horses, peering out toward the imaginary horizon as the sun disappears and leaves its mark in the pink of the sky. Snowy pastures surround dimly lit tents where cowboys are undoubtedly bunked in for the night.
“Those are guys that I stay on the wagon with on the big ranches and work with, and I’m recording what I see. These are friends of mine. I’m recording what I’ve lived, basically,” Greene said.
Some of the paintings and drawings are studies of individual subjects – a horse with no rider or a cowboy preparing to saddle up. All are vibrant representations of a dying way of life. Greene describes his reasons for creating a window into the world of the cowboy — his world — before the opportunity slips away from him forever.
“I want them to feel connected to the Western world and get a sense of that freedom. I want to touch them with that. I want to connect them to that world that they won’t get to see.”