SANTA FE, N.M. — Forget Billy the Kid or Buffalo Bill. According to artist John Jason Phillips, the real “legends” of the early American West were the everyday, now anonymous figures who played integral parts in day-to-day life.
People like the saloon girls, the local law officers, Native American chiefs, and even prostitutes – or “soiled doves” – amid the horses and trains.
Phillips’ new watercolors series of 19th-century Western archetypes, he says, sheds new light on the what he calls the heroes of the era – the ones who faced the constant danger and hardship of the then-new frontier.
“(These are) the things that kept life going well in the Old West,” he said.
His solo show, “Legends,” will be up at 7Arts Gallery until April 30.
The Santa Fe painter, who grew up in West Virginia and moved here four years ago after a more-than-50-year career in theatre, most notably worked as a freelance or staff scenic designer for places like the San Francisco Opera, the New York City Opera, the American Ballet Theatre and Broadway shows. Now retired, he can focus more on personal work like his watercolors.
Some of the characters in the 16 new paintings came directly from the mind of Phillips, a self-proclaimed “Old West freak.”
Others resulted from research on old tintype photos. His works inspired by the found photos are based on actual people, like a 19th-century barmaid and prostitute, “Tessie Two Cups,” who was known in her day for balancing two teacups on her chest. But none of the characters in his works has a name.
All of them, rather, represent a larger subset of people in the West that Phillips says deserve honor.
“There’s not a famous person there, not one,” he said. “But everyone will recognize everyone.”
His new work also includes a painting of a skeleton-like figure, clad in a duster coat and hat, and with a gun in hand, meant to represent death.
Phillips said the concept of death to those living in the Old West was something that was almost as palpable as the other people, places and things that surrounded them.
“It was there,” he said about adding death to the show. “Prominent in every single day you were alive and working and walking around the Earth.” He calls his piece on the subject “The Inevitable End.”
Even though his characters are nameless, Phillips said he still considers “Legends” a historical show, maybe even more so than if he was painting famous Western figures. He said the anonymity makes those in the paintings more relatable because viewers can connect the characters to their own experiences or ideas about the West.
7Arts co-owner Angel Wynn said she hopes Phillips’ paintings will bring a new audience to the Santa Fe gallery scene – hobby historians or professionals interested in seeing an artistic take on a past era.
“It lends itself to the Wild West, the Southwest, the history of New Mexico, and I think that’s a drawcard for people that are interested in history to come and look at art,” said Wynn.
The opening reception for “Legends” is tonight from 5-7 p.m.; it is free and open to the public.