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home : arts & entertainment : arts & entertainment June 20, 2018

6/5/2018 12:23:00 PM
Len Babb's art recalls the past in the West
Len Babb’s life in the saddle helps make his work authentic. photo provided
+ click to enlarge
Len Babb’s life in the saddle helps make his work authentic. photo provided

‘Bringing in the Remuda’ showcases the difficult and sometimes dangerous night work on the cattle trail. photo provided
+ click to enlarge
‘Bringing in the Remuda’ showcases the difficult and sometimes dangerous night work on the cattle trail. photo provided

By Helen Schmidling

There was a time, when Len Babb finished a painting, he'd give it to a friend, or maybe trade it, but mostly he'd toss it into a corner and then move on to the next one. But that was before he realized that, not only was he creating a legacy of art from Western history, he was crafting iconic images for future generations.

Len spent his life as a buckaroo. He wasn't out fixing fences or baling hay. He rode, and he rode hard. And when he was done, he painted, and did a little sculpting as well.

All during June, Len Babb's Western art is on display in the Community Room at Sisters Library. Last month, he showed his work at Black Butte Ranch, and at Sisters HomeLand Realty (the historic Hardy Allen building) during the Fourth Friday Art Stroll. Len was also the featured guest on the first Running Iron Report ( podcast from the bunkhouse by Nugget columnist Craig Rullman and Editor in Chief Jim Cornelius. Paintings like the ones Len gave away over the years are now selling for thousands of dollars. Len and his work will be back in Sisters on the first Saturday in August at the Sisters Fire Hall with live music and new oil paintings.

"I learned to draw as soon as I could hold a pencil," he said. "My father taught me how to paint a horse when I was about six or seven."

Now in his 70s, Len says he's made hundreds if not thousands of paintings in his lifetime. Although Len has become a living legend in the world of working cowboys, he said, "I never expected to become famous with the rest of the world!"

Len paints in the style of the famous Western artist Charlie Russell.

"Some people say my work looks too much like Russell, but I think they don't look enough like Russell," he said.

His work depicts the era of the cowboy, the Indian, the frontiersman; an era that began to disappear when the automobile came along. He paints in both oil and watercolor, draws with pen and ink, and creates small bronze sculptures. And, as if that's not enough, he also makes highly sought-after one-of-a-kind Western saddles.

During the Running Iron Report interview, Len admitted that, at first, the most difficult part of drawing a horse was getting the hoof right.

When it comes to creating the scene though, Len just gets it all right. A good example is his painting "Bringing in the Remuda," a term derived from the Spanish for "remount" or change of horses. Buckaroos working the range required new mounts one or two times a day, in order to make sure that all horses were adequately rested. The wrangler was in charge of rounding up horses (the remuda) as the sun rose and set.

The first thing you notice in "Bringing in the Remuda" is the wrangler, bright yellow raincoat tails flying as he appears to become one with his mount. Then there is the light, squeezed beneath dark clouds, as the setting sun casts its rays on the storm's leftover water, pooling within the sagebrush. But there are always more details: the chuckwagon in the background, tarped for protection from the recent rain, and nearby, two big kettles of vittles for dinner, boiling over a fast flame. A pair of cooks watch the steaming pots, and another cowboy stands to one side, rope in hand.

Craig Rullman, who spent time as a buckaroo in Nevada himself, said, "I feel like I am stepping right into the scene."

Real historic events form the basis of Len's work. According to him, "There is a story in how things were, and that's important."

You can't have cowboys without Indians, and the early Native Americans show up in nearly half of Len's paintings. "Leaving Bent's Fort" and "Blanket Traders" are companion pieces on display at Sisters Library. In the 1830s, Bent's Fort, on the banks of the Arkansas River in southeastern Colorado, was a non-military outpost in the heart of Indian country, buffalo hunting grounds, and the crossroads of key overland trading routes. Mountain men visited there to exchange their beaver skins, obtain traps and supplies. Brothers Charles and William Bent, along with Ceran St. Vrain, partnered a highly profitable trading empire that reached from Texas to Wyoming, and from the Rocky Mountains to Kansas.

They were on friendly terms with the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho, and William Bent married the daughter of a Southern Cheyenne chief. The fort was a neutral meeting place for tribes and U.S. officials, as well as tribal councils. The original fort was authentically rebuilt in the 1950s, and is now known as Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site. Len and Gloria stopped their a few years ago while driving to visit one of their sons, and right then, Len knew he had to paint the fort as it existed in its glory days. He also painted "Blanket Traders," a scene of Indians trading their goods with trappers on the nearby plains.

One of Len's greatest fans is Dr. Larry Len Peterson of Black Butte Ranch. Peterson says, "Friends see the same truth, and they share it. Without a doubt, the legacy of Charles M. Russell is not only his paintings, sculptures, and writing, but also the impact he had on fellow and future artists. There is no artist living today that Russell would call more of a friend than Len Babb."

As the director of the board for the CM Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana, and co-chair of its art acquisition committee, Peterson speaks with authority.

"In many ways," Peterson says, "Len is today's Russell, not only because of his art, but because of his humanity. That smile, that warmth, that transparency, and the love for the American West make Babb one of the true sons of Charlie Russell. I am proud to own one of Len's buffalo hunts."

If you have time, in between the excitement of bull-riding, parades, and Sisters Rodeo events, if you hanker to sit and ponder yesteryear's cowboys, Indians, explorers, and pioneers of the places we live in today, stop by the Sisters Library before June 29. Peterson says a visit is a must-do.

"Almost all Western artists at some time in their career attempt to capture the thrill and dangers of this subject. Len's ability to capture gesture in arrested motion and then add the accurate colors to the Western landscape is truly exceptional. Without a doubt, visitors to the Sisters Library are in for an educational treat," Peterson said. "They can experience the American West when the land belonged to God. Len is a Western master."

Otherwise, in the ultimate touch of irony on the Internet, you can see Len Babb's iconic depictions of the not-so-recent past on his website,, and on his Facebook page. Original artwork, and giclee prints on canvas and paper are also available for purchase. A small commission from items purchased at the library exhibit will be donated to the Friends of the Sisters Library.

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