Los Lunas – His name is recognized for many reasons. After all, during his short 59 years of life, Bob Lee was a college track and football legend, a third-generation state senator and a cowboy from a prominent ranching family. However, Lee is perhaps best remembered for his realistic and grand sweeping paintings of the Old West.
Bob Lee, born to the prominent ranching family of Oliver M. Lee, wasn’t an artistic prodigy. He didn’t enter high school art competitions or get a degree in art history from a university. In fact, Lee came to art in the last half of his life, when most artists begin to give up hope of ever becoming well known.
Dubbed a “cowboy artist,” Lee used a variety of ways to create the rugged Old West, including oils, gouache, pencil, pen and ink and charcoal.
His paintings are not of current day cowboys but of a time long past, with sprawling desert landscapes and herds of wild horses.
In an interview with the Albuquerque Journal entitled, “Lee’s still a cowboy; he rides a canvas now,” Lee said he is a Western artist because (1) he knows the art, (2) it’s what he cares about and (3) it’s what some art buyers like to hang on their walls.
When it came to his paintings, Lee was most concerned with “getting the look right.” For example, accurately painting “the way the guy sits on his horse.” He thought it was important to make things look right to the people you can’t fool – the real cowboys.
“It all comes down to a man and his horses,” Lee told the Journal. “That’s what I paint most because that’s what being a cowboy is all about,” he said.
Lee, who favored painting snow scenes best, said he got his ideas for his paintings from his memories of living on a ranch for the first 35 years of his life.
As a child living in Alamogordo, Lee was inspired Red Ryder, a 1940s comic book hero who was a tough cowboy.
In high school and college at the University of New Mexico, Lee briefly put Red Ryder and cowboy art behind him to focus on his athletic career, by which he was known as a legend in the college track and football world.
In both sports, Lee made the news for numerous state records, including one for a state meet 100-yard-dash. His time was a new record that stood for 19 years. In Lee’s junior year at UNM, he scored 11 touchdowns and was a leader in the nation in combined punt and kickoff returns. Lee graduated in 1956 with a bachelor’s degree in education.
Even after college, when Lee and his brother managed the family ranch full-time, art was never too far from his mind, even though Lee said that he thought that he would spend the rest of his life as a rancher.
During his time in the military, Lee earned his first commission on a painting.
“I painted a portrait of a little beagle for some friends while I was in the Marine Corps,” Lee wrote in his biography. “I got $15 for it, and I think I was overpaid.”
In 1969, at 36, Lee’s art career begins to flourish. The Taos Art Gallery owner asked him if he’d be willing to show some of his work there. He agreed, and for four years, his art was shown. During that time, he sold nearly everything he had painted to them.
In 1976, Lee’s wife entered him in the Saturday Evening Post’s nationwide artist’s competition without his knowledge.
“I told her that I thought she was wasting her time because it was a cowboy subject, and the painting was smaller than the contest rules had dictated,” Lee wrote in his biography. Irene entered the painting anyway and Lee won second place which was announced in the June 19, 1976, issue of the magazine.
In 1978, Lee presented his painting titled “The Wild Ones” to President Ronald Reagan at the Hilton Hotel in Albuquerque. In 2005, a letter was sent to Lee’s widow, Irene, complete with a picture. In the picture, taken inside the private quarters of President and Mrs. Reagan at their ranch, hung Lee’s painting on the wall. Twenty-seven years had passed, but Lee’s painting remained in Reagan’s residence.
In 1985, Lee was personally invited by the Sidney Turf Club of Sidney Australia, to paint the winning horse of the prestigious and popular horse race, Golden Slipper. Lee titled the painting, an oil-on-masonite, “Rory’s Jester.”
Throughout his career, Lee’s work was featured in places such as the Koshare Indian Museum in La Junta, Colo., Southland and Corp. in Dallas, Texas, The Leanin’ Tree Publishing Co., in Boulder Colo., the Albuquerque Museum and the Mountain Oyster Club in Tucson, Ariz. At any given time, Lee had three years worth of customers on a waiting list for paintings.
Lee believed in working on one painting at a time. Normally, an average painting could take anywhere from two days to two months for Lee for complete. If he got an idea for another painting, he’d make a quick thumbnail sketch, which he called, “a rough sketch of what I have in mind,” and then go back and complete his current work.
“He portrays an era past,” Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts historian, Patty Guggino, said. “He felt that ranching as he knew it was a lost art, and he wanted to portray the beauty of it.”
Guggino, who was a longtime family friend of Lee’s, said it wasn’t only his art but his personality that made him who he was.
“He was multi-talented. A caring person and one who excelled in a great variety of endeavors,” she said.
“Through the Eyes of a Cowboy,” highlighting the art of Bob Lee and ranching in Valencia County, will open Saturday, Feb. 6, at the Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Art. It is currently in the process of being assembled.