SAPELLO – Gary Morton, time-tested cowboy and talented, point-on painter of the puncher life, is standing in the back room of his house, portions of which are a log cabin built a hundred years ago in this small community a dozen miles north of Las Vegas, N.M.
“For a normal person this would be the living room,” says Morton of the space, flooded by late-morning winter light from a north-facing window. For Morton, it’s a studio outfitted with an easel, paints, brushes, prints and paintings finished and in progress.
Outside that north window are wide-open spaces stretching across pasture to mountains studded with piñon and cedar. But the rugged, rolling, climbing and dropping ranch lands of the West are also in the studio, captured in Morton’s art.
Men on horseback and the cattle they work populate paintings inspired by life at ranches such as the Cates Ranch west of Roy; the D Ranch between Carlsbad and El Paso; and the O6 Ranch in the Davis Mountains of west Texas.
But mostly, in pieces with titles such as “Trot and Trot Again,” “We Rode Out on the Morning” and the 40-by-60-inch “Living the Dream,” Morton’s work is set on the historic and sprawling Bell Ranch near Tucumcari. And that’s the way it should be. Because he got his start, both as a cowboy and as an artist, at the Bell.
Calluses and accolades
Morton, 67, has earned his share of calluses, rope burns and accolades over the years. He started as a green cowboy at the Bell just out of high school, hired on at various other ranches over the years, worked his way up to jobs such as Bell Ranch wagon boss and manager of the CR Ranch near Las Vegas and ran his own stock on leased grazing.
He has served as chairman of the New Mexico Arts Commission and director of the state’s Office of Cultural Affairs. In 2015, the New Mexico Department of Agriculture recognized Morton with the Rounders Award, presented to people who “live, promote and articulate the Western way of life.” And his painting, “The Simple Pleasures of New Mexico,” which depicts a mounted cowboy taking a break to soak in the beauties of a river valley landscape, hangs in New Mexico’s Capitol Building.
“As a painter he does good work and he gets it right because he has lived that (ranch) life,” said Curtis Fort of Tatum, a former Bell cowboy himself and a top-notch Western sculptor who is a recipient of the 2017 Rounders Award and this year’s Governor’s Award for excellence in the arts. “Gary’s paintings have a feel to them. He gets the anatomy of the people, the horses and the cattle. The rope length is right. And the paintings have a story to them. You know where the cowboys are going and what they’re going to be doing.”
Morton’s life can be traced to his hometown of Tucumcari and the Bell Ranch.
“Growing up in Tucumcari, one was able to see the Bell cowboys when the came to town,” Morton said. “As a young teenager, it was like watching a hawk on the wing. They had a certain look, a confidence, just plain cool and everyone knew they were cowboys from the Bell.”
Morton remembers his first glimpses of the Bell Ranch.
“My dad, a brilliant mechanic, owned a farm implement dealership there in Tucumcari and would cut people’s hay,” he said. “I started going with him as a kid. He was doing some custom farming at the Clabber Hill farm, which was part of the Bell Ranch, and I can still remember seeing that gate, a simple iron gate, locked, with the Bell brand on the overhead. I could see through the gate, the road running through a 20-section pasture, rolling over hill after hill. It was a great source of curiosity for me even as a kid.”
Morton might never have become a Bell cowboy, perhaps not a cowboy at all, if he had not been kicked out of Tucumcari High for skipping classes.
Wolf of the world
“My mom’s twin sister lived in Gallup so I went to live with her family and graduated from Gallup High School,” Morton said. “My aunt and uncle had kids a little younger than me, and they were into rodeo. They had horses. My uncle roped a lot and the kids ran barrels.” As a result, Morton got the rodeo bug and decided he wanted to ride broncs.
“After a few months, I got a ride on bareback bronc and stayed with him,” Morton said. “I thought I was the wolf of the world.”
Figuring he was a sure-enough cowboy, Morton applied for a job at the Bell after finishing high school in 1969. He got an interview with ranch manager George Ellis.
“I told him I had been riding broncs,” Morton said. “I didn’t know there was a big difference between rodeo broncs and ranch broncs.”
Rodeo contestants need only stay on a bronc for eight seconds to get a score. But if a ranch horse breaks in two, the cowboy has to stay with it until it stops kicking or face a long walk home and the razzing of the other hired hands. Morton said that during his first summer, the other hands, including Fort, spent a lot of time chasing his horses.
“I am sure that Curtis could tell I did not know anything, but he never let on,” Morton said. “He was helpful without being obvious. I am pretty sure if it hadn’t been for his friendship, I would not have lasted a month.”
Fort said that even though Morton was not raised in the ranching life he must have had it in his blood, “because he turned out to be as good a cowboy as I ever worked with.”
A bunkhouse start
“After that summer of ’69, Fort and other young Bell cowhands returned to college. But Morton stayed on the ranch, continuing his studies in cowboyology.
“Frank Vigil, the Bell windmill guy, had a TV,” Morton said. “One night we watched a PBS special about (famous cowboy artist) Charlie Russell. I had been interested in artwork as a kid and having seen the Russell story on TV, I was inspired to do artwork of the (cowboy) life I was living. I began to paint in the bunkhouse that winter.”
Morton never had any formal art training, but he and Fort shared their artistic interests, working and learning together. And Morton credits Western painters Robert Lougheed, whose art illustrates George Ellis’ book “Bell Ranch As I Knew It,” and Tom Ryan with demonstrating their techniques, giving him tips and offering encouragement.
Even after he began making a living as a painter, Morton would do spring and fall work on ranches, taking his camera with him to record experiences he later translated into paintings.
He did his last ranch stint in 2010-11 at the Bell, where it all started. For the last six years, Morton, the divorced father of two and the grandfather of three, has been the caretaker for the 300-acre Sapello spread. He looks after the land, the landowner’s four horses and two horses of his own and paints in what time he has left over, building up an inventory for a one-man show down the line.
“I still visit ranches in order to get new ideas and reference material for my painting,” he said. “You never dream you are painting history. But if you are in it long enough, you actually are.”