Tim Cox, 60, from an early age, possessed a passion for the West, cowboys, and horses, and an undeniable gift for artistry. He has always pursued those passions regardless of the consequences. From living in remote and desolate cowboy camps without electricity or running water to hours and hours at the easel, he’s truly suffered for his art. Now, as one of the most decorated and popular artists of the genre, he spends his time outside of Bloomfield, N.M., painting and riding. Editor Bob Welch caught up with him to talk family legacy, inspiration, and the meaning of his work.
Tell us about your background.
I was raised in the small farming community of Duncan, Ariz. I’m a great-grandson of settlers of Arizona on both sides of my family—a fourth-generation Arizonan. My dad’s side had a ranch in the Chiricahua Mountains, called the Mud Springs Ranch, about the time of statehood or before. My mother’s side came down the Santa Fe trail and ended up settling in the Safford area. I got my first ranch job when I was 8 years old. It was a dollar a day, but it meant a lot to an 8-year-old.
How long did you work as a cowboy before the art caught on?
I always wanted to be a Western artist. I think I was 19 and my wife, Suzie, and I were living in a real isolated place. We didn’t have electricity or running water and that house didn’t have any insulation. All it had for heat was a wood cook stove and a fireplace. It got so cold one night that Suzie and I drug our mattress in by the fireplace and still about froze. We crawled under the mattress to stay warm. It had been real muddy, but the next day the road was frozen solid enough that we could load our two-horse trailer with what belongings we had and we got out of there. Later, Western artist Grant Speed came to look at a horse my neighbor had, and they said, “Hey, Tim’s an artist.” Grant came over, saw some of my artwork, and told me to bring it to the Cowboy Artists show that fall. He introduced me to some galleries in Scottsdale. Trailside Galleries took me on, and ever since then I’ve been a professional artist. In the early years, it was pretty tough, but it’s been good to me since then.
Did you have any formal artistic training or were you self-taught?
My kindergarten teacher called my parents in told them they needed to get me in art lessons. All through school, all my teachers made special projects for me. I sold my first one when I was 12. Then, after I met Grant, he contacted artist Bill Whitaker on my behalf as a candidate for a class he was teaching. We drew from a model five days a week for seven hours a day. That’s my only formal education. Later, Grant introduced me to other Cowboy Artists of America. John Clymer, Gordon Snidow, and Jim Reynolds all critiqued my work and helped me along. I’ve always been lucky to have people generous enough to share their knowledge with me.
When you sit down to paint, what are your goals?
When I think of realism, it’s not just about details. It’s about dimension and color and light. Then I also think of the composition, color, harmony, and design to guide the viewer’s eye around in the painting to tell a story. One of the things I learned when I was working with Gordon Snidow was the way the old illustrators would tell a story and create a mood without people knowing it: A taught telephone line to create tension, horizontal lines to create relaxation, or erratic lines bursting out to create excitement. That has helped me to be able to tell these stories of the West and the life that I love.
Who are some of your artistic heroes?
The one that I can relate to more than anybody was Bill Owens. After he died, his widow, Valerie, gave me all the working equipment in his studio—chaps, a hat, and his saddle. Someday somebody is going to want to do a museum on him, and I’m taking care of it until then.
Why does it seem that the Southwest is such an attractive place for Western artists?
To me, the heritage means a lot. But even for those who paint landscapes and the Taos artists, it’s the light. I travel around the country on different ranches, from Wyoming to California, to Missouri, to Montana, and Alabama, but the light is not as strong and colorful and clear as it is here in the Southwest. Some of the best light I’ve ever experienced—where it’s clear—is in Northeast New Mexico. There’s not a lot of farming, turning up the dirt, and there’s not a lot of people. Going out there, the colors are just more clear and vibrant.
It seems your prints are nearly ubiquitous in homes of those who love the West: from ranchers, to team ropers, to collectors. What do you think gives your art such broad appeal?
I’ve always wondered that myself. Painting from the heart, I think. I feel they can see I have a passion and love for it, so they can relate to it. It’s not phony. It’s something they somehow know is true. I hope they can relate to the authenticity and honesty of it.
When you’re not painting, how do you spend your time?
Right now, a lot of it is spent being the president of the Cowboy Artists of America. Ideally, it’s getting horseback, training horses, and helping kids in high school rodeo—getting out in the country. To recharge my batteries, I have to get out on the ranches in the spring and fall.
As an artist, do you think about your legacy?
I really haven’t thought of it that much. I’ve tried to just get the best art I can every day and let what happens happen, and go from there. It’s amazing how when you give your heart to something, how many people want to help you do it along the way. That’s what I’ve been blessed with.