Jack Swanson is living proof that horsing around can be the best kind of living. The self-described loner says horses are his life. He’s ridden them for as long as he can remember. Some he’s raced real fast. One even tied a world record; twice. He’s painted thousands of horses and today each piece goes for tens of thousands of dollars. One even hung in the White House. He’s met countless friends rearing horses. His all-time best buddy is a horse he named Amigo. One even helped him meet and marry his wife.
“I’m part horse. I can’t figure on anything in my life without being around one,” Jack says.He doesn’t look like a horse, but Jack Swanson is the epitome of a horseman. At 78, he’s a leather-faced, raspy-voiced, tough man with rough hands. But his eyes are full of a gentle shine. He’s a man that’s seen more than most, but chooses to focus on the country way of living he loves so much.
His sprawling ranch in Cachagua is nestled in the valley surrounded by the Tularcitos Mountain Range. A dozen, healthy horses gallop freely in their abundant pastures. The golden California grass is starting to turn green from recent rains, and the range seems to roll on and on and on. Swanson built his ranch house with his own hands. And like them, the Douglas fir and California oak structure is strong and sturdy. He’s never had to replace a single board. Swanson’s studio is just up the beaten path. It’s an immaculate work of art in and of itself. The studio is big enough for a horse. In fact, it’s meant to be that way. Swanson used to saddle ‘em up and bring horses right in through the side door. And like he trained them, they were the perfect subjects. But they get things too dusty, so now he doesn’t bother. The studio is cluttered with cowboy paraphernalia, art awards, old photos, letters from friends/customers, and beautiful bronzes which Jack also makes by hand.
The studio was built so he could work by north light. And on this day it’s illuminating a work in progress on the easel. It’s a giant historical piece featuring Joaquin Murrieta, one of California’s great bandits. He’s going through a pass in the rocky terrain north of King City with dozens of stolen horses on their way to Mexico. It’s an untitled piece that simply came from an unforced thought in Jack Swanson’s mind. All of his paintings begin that same way. “It just comes to me,” Jack says. “I start by sketching it with charcoal. I never use photos. I put myself in these paintings… my own feeling of my hand on the reins and the reaction of the horse. It’s all very personal.”
In this painting, each horse is doing its own thing. Some drink from the stream. Some charge ahead. Others look back to where they came from. They all look so real, so rustic. The landscape is in perfect balance with the action of each horse. In order to get the anatomy to look so right, Jack says, “You have to intimately know a horse. You have to have been bucked off a horse and look at it from the belly up!” Jack’s also studied the land close-up, even crawling under sagebrush to sketch the roots.
As you might imagine, Jack is the exact opposite of the stereotypical artsy guy. You’d be hard pressed to find many of his works in galleries. He refuses to work with them anymore. “They ticked me off, is what they did,” Jack scowls. “I said, ‘Good God’ to a gallery curator, ‘you make as much money as I do and all you do is hang it on the wall.’” Jack’s turned out some of the most breathtaking and recognizable cowboy art of the 20th Century. He’s a hall of fame member of the Cowboy Artists of America. Now his clients come to him. And that’s just the way he likes it.
To understand Jack’s affinity for horses and the country, you have to trace back his roots. Jack Swanson was born in Minnesota in 1927. His dad was a backwoods guide, his mother a successful ballerina. The Swanson’s packed up and moved to California when Jack was four years old. At that impressionable age, Jack says he became a “horse nut” on that long journey west. Back then, there was nothing but dirt roads, and once you got into the Dakotas, nothing but cowboys. He watched from the backseat of his parent’s rig as they shared the road with cowboys and their herds of cattle. It was slow going at times, but the cowboys sure came in handy. When the Swansons got stuck in bog holes along the way, they were the first to help out, roping the car’s bumper and pulling the family out.
When they finally got to California, Jack felt pretty acquainted to the country lifestyle. As a young boy, Jack did nothing but draw horses. And, by 10 or 11, he was pretty damn good at it. By age 15, Jack was breaking horses at a huge ranch in San Joaquin. A couple of years later, he saddled a horse, rode over the Sierra-Madres, across the Mojave Desert, and up to Tehachapi where he worked with the last of the really great old-time vaqueros of California. As he roped and rode, Jack studied the interaction between the horses and his teachers. “(The vaqueros) rode balanced and straight, one finger on the reins. They could just touch ‘em and the horse would run backwards.”
At night, Jack traded in his saddle for his sketch book, where he tried to recreate what he saw on the pastures. He knew the anatomy of a horse inside and out and, at the time, thought he could put it to good use as a veterinarian. But in 1944, those passions took a backseat to his patriotism. The world was at war and Jack enlisted in the Navy. “Back then, there was a real reason to fight. Or right now we’d be speaking German or Japanese.” Jack made it through basic training and became a pharmacy mate at Camp Pendleton. Before long, he was the head of emergency operations, treating the injured returning home from Iwo Jima. He set broken bones and put casts on and took them off. His supervisors said he’d make a hell of a doctor. But after the war he knew his real calling was horses.
At the time, his brother was ranching in Oregon, studying to be a vet. So Jack headed north. His high school grades weren’t good enough to get him into veterinary school, but Jack was more than happy to work on the ranch breaking and shoeing horses. Neither job paid much, so he picked up work at a logging mill ripping out old railroad ties. “It paid a dollar an hour. I was rich,” Jack remembers. And all that back-breaking work gave Jack some incredibly strong shoulders. He could do ten one-arm pull-ups back then. With no phone and no electricity, Jack drew at night by a coal oil lamp. He’d developed his trademark by then: life-like horses blending into real, country landscapes. And people were starting to notice his drawings, too. When the rodeo came to town, Jack was always asked to make the posters.
In 1947, a sleek, brown quarter horse with small ears and large nostrils changed his life. They met in a muddy barn one winter’s day and as soon as Jack looked into his inquisitive eyes, he knew they’d be buddies for life. Jack bought him from a fellow rancher, took him home and rightly named him “Amigo.”
Whether it was working cows in the corral or striding in the open field, Jack knew he had something special in Amigo. He watched him around other horses and quickly learned that Amigo wanted to be the best, especially when it came to racing. So one day Jack bought a stopwatch and paced out 220 yards. To his amazement, his horse finished just shy of the 12.3 second world record at the time. Jack knew he could have fun with Amigo at county fairs. But at about that same time, he saw a newspaper clipping warning him that time was running out to use his G.I. Bill money ($78 a month for school). The joy of racing with Amigo would have to wait, but not for long.
Since he couldn’t be a vet, Jack decided to give art school a go. So in the spring of 1948, he hooked up a homemade trailer to his 1932 V-8 Ford Model B, threw in his bed roll and saddle, and he and Amigo were off to the great College of Arts & Crafts in Oakland, California. “I rigged a sign on the front of the car that said ‘HORSE-SHOER’.” Jack laughs, adding, “It was quite a sight driving along with it swinging in the breeze.” Sure enough, though, ranchers would stop him along the road, he’d pull over, shoe three horses, and he’d be back on his way. By the time he got to Oakland he had $80 in his pocket and a full tank of gas.
Jack knew right away that he didn’t fit in at art school. The big deal at the time was non-objective art. So as the rest of the class painted abstract, Jack drew real horses. “My teacher decided right away I wasn’t good art material. In front of the whole class he held up a sketch of a horse I’d been doing and said this fella’s going the wrong way, he’ll never make it as an artist and so on and so forth.”Jack invited the teacher outside to finish the conversation. The teacher wisely declined. Jack had had enough of art school for awhile.
At this point, he could almost hear the racing trumpets – it was time to take Amigo on the road. With 150-pound Jack Swanson on his back in his t-shirt white and Levi-blue racing colors, Amigo tore up the county fair circuit. He beat undefeated horses with ferocious names, like Dark Victory, one by one and tied the world record twice along the way. After months of winning, Amigo pulled up lame in Stockton. His racing days were over and Jack’s art school days were about to start all over again.
The vet told Jack he needed to work Amigo in salt water to heal his injury. The Carmel Art Institute was the only accredited art school along the Pacific Ocean. So, on a blustery, fall day in 1948, Jack and Amigo pulled into the sleepy town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. There were only five or six cars per block back then. Jack moved into a stall at Hodge’s Stable, right below the Carmel Mission. Amigo got the adjoining corral. The owner let them stay there while Jack broke colts for him. “The stall had no roof, just roofing paper with holes in it. So I put a tarp over my bed in case it rained,” Jack says, with a resourceful-looking nod.
The teacher at the art institute was tickled to get a veteran and greeted Jack with open arms. But he soon learned that Jack just wanted to be left alone. Once that detail was worked out, the two got along just fine. Before class, Jack took early morning gallops with Amigo along Carmel Beach. It was some of the best bonding time the two ever spent. Amigo loved the salt water, but his injury just wouldn’t go away. Eventually it got too painful and Jack’s best friend had to be put down. Jack says, “I owe everything I have to that horse.” It’s still too emotional for him to talk about.
Amigo had brought Jack to Carmel for a reason and he would soon understand why. One day, he noticed a young girl who’d come over from private school and was looking through the stable fence. She wanted to ride and Jack obliged. A few days later she brought her father with her. It was Donald Teague, the National Academy artist, who lived nearby. He took a liking to Jack and saw his paintings shoved in his stall. From then on, Donald Teague became Jack’s mentor. He’d paint and Teague would give him pointers. Soon after, Jack started going to shows and was winning prizes for his horse paintings. Little did he know, his best prize was about to sweep him off his feet.
With Amigo gone, Jack used to get to art school two hours early and paint outside the school. Every morning at about that same time a young lady working for the gift shop underneath the school was out sweeping the sidewalk. Jack finally got up the courage to go down and talk to her. “We visited for awhile and I asked her if she’d go on a date with me to the horse show. She said yes. She used to live on a ranch in Sacramento and loved horses. And so we went to the show. It was our first date and that evening I gave her my new horse.” Three months later she gave him her hand. Fifty-four years of matrimony later, Jack says with a smirk, “She got the raw end of that deal.”
In 1951, Jack and his wife Sally moved to a fruit picker shack in Carmel Valley where they had their honeymoon. A short time later a woman nearby let them move into her guesthouse. They stayed there for five years and had their first two children (daughters Kris and Wendy) while Jack painted and broke horses. Jack’s works of art were starting to fetch big bucks at the gallery in town and in 1956, he’d made enough money to put some down on a 10-acre lot in Cachagua. “We wanted to get out of the suburbia of Carmel Valley,” Jack says. “So we packed everything high in an old pick-up truck, including two goats and a cage full of chickens. As we came through town, it was like The Grapes of Wrath, the animals making all kinds of noise. I told Sally I was kind of embarrassed going through town with everyone staring, so I put my old hound dog in my lap, put his paws on the steering wheel, sunk way down, and Sally steered. It looked like the dog was driving and everyone outside sweeping got a big hoot out of it.”
Jack, Sally, the kids and their animals made it to Cachagua, far away from the ever-modernizing world of Carmel Valley. They moved into an abandoned ranch house on Martin Flavin’s property. (He’s the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Journey in the Dark). Jack continued to paint and ride and the couple had their third child, a son, Cash. After a couple years, Flavin sold the property. The whole family was forced to move and they didn’t have much time. They had the ten acres up the road, but had to start from scratch on a home. With no lumber and no water, it was not going to be an easy task.
Jack started by digging the foundation and was working on a septic tank hole for the house, when a car drove up one day. A guy walked up to his property and said, “Hi, I’m Jimmy Cagney.” He told Jack he’d bought a painting of his up the road and asked to meet the artist. The two had lunch and, lo and behold, James Cagney was not only a big time actor, he was a water witcher as well. He told Jack he’d come back the next day and help him douse his acreage with a fork stick. Cagney stayed true to his word. As Jimmie and Jack dug in the summer sun, Sally used a homemade winch to get rid of the mud. Thirteen feet later they reached water. Someone gave the Swansons a pump, Jack made a tank, and after a hard day’s work they had a gravity flow water system, but no home.
As fate would have it, a short time later another car drove up to the Swansons. It was another guy who’d bought one of Jack’s paintings, Bob Nikkel. Bob just happened to be in the logging business and owned six mills up in the Sierra. The two struck a deal: for each truckload of lumber Bob shipped south, Jack would send a painting north. Eight truckloads later, Jack had all the materials he needed. He designed the ranch house and pounded each nail in himself.
The Swansons named their new home Whiffle Tree Ranch after the device that goes behind a harnessed horse and connects to a wagon. Life for the Swansons was running smoothly now. The school bus picked the kids up right at the foot of the driveway, Jack still rode and trained horses, and his oil paintings, which once sold for $250, were now selling for several thousand dollars apiece. Jack did his artwork in the living room, until he decided the kids were making too much noise. That’s when he started work on building his studio.
In the early 1970′s, Jack began doing bronzes with the encouragement of a doctor friend of his. Years ago he picked up the lost wax method of sculpting, but didn’t have clay around the studio to make anything. The doctor promised he’d drop off more clay than Jack could handle. So Jack had a new project on his hands. His first bronze he called The First Look. It’s a statue of a mare that had just given birth to a colt, turning around to look at it. Jack limits his castings to 20 each and they’ve supplemented his income quite nicely.
By the early 1980′s, James Arness of “Gunsmoke” fame, Sam Elliott, and Rhonda Fleming all had Swanson originals in their collections. His oils were now selling for $25,000 a pop. And actor-turned-politician Ronald Reagan had a Swanson hanging in the Governor’s mansion in Sacramento. The piece is called Vaqueros Moving Camp (1968). It was one of Reagan’s all-time favorite paintings. The 36″x48″ is one of Jack’s finest: four dark-skinned cowboys, straight and sturdy on their saddles, herding a bunch of horses. They’re coming down out of the hills, chomping through a trail in the golden sage between two old oaks. When Reagan became the 40th President of the United States, he took the piece with him to Washington. He hung it in the White House and sent Jack a letter. Part of it read: “You are more than kind to lend this to us while we are here in our ‘public housing.’” After Reagan’s second term in Washington, D.C., he left his public housing digs for his ranch in Santa Barbara and returned the painting to Jack. It now hangs at Whiffle Tree Ranch.
Jack Swanson had become internationally known in the art community. As a result, he traveled to showings, benefits, and auctions in New York and across the country. During one of his stops in Nevada, he spent his down time traveling the countryside, stopping at some ranches along the way. He was moved by the beauty of the 790,000-acre Pine Creek Ranch operated by a fourth-generation cowboy named Wayne Hage. The two didn’t know each other from Adam, but the ranching story Wayne told Jack made him sick.
The year was 1991 and Hage had been embattled with the federal government in a dispute over property rights. At issue: Hage’s grazing permits and water rights that had been allotted to his family since the mid-1800′s. They’d been running thousands of head of cattle on that land for 150 years and taxed heavily for it, but now environmentalists, led by the U.S. Forest Service, were trying to run him out of business. They claimed Hage had been overgrazing. But in the spring, when Hage sent them pictures of him standing in waist-high grass, they told him it was the wrong kind of grass. Later, armed federal agents confiscated 104 of his cattle, sold them at auction, kept the profits, and then sent Hage the bill for rounding up the cattle in the first place. Hage was beginning to realize this was a battle he couldn’t win. Then, more than 10 years after the ordeal started, and with Hage on the brink of financial collapse, Jack and Wayne came up with an idea.
Jack went home to Whiffle Tree and started painting. The finished product was a brilliant tribute to ranchers who have spent their lives clearing brush, preventing massive forest fires, and preserving some of America’s most beautiful land. It shows vaqueros carefully herding their cattle through rugged terrain, just making it to a clearing in the grove around rocks and downed trees. The symbolism in this painting is unmistakable. No one knows this land and what’s good for it better than the ranchers. Jack titled it Stewards of the Range and raffled off the painting, earning $146,000. He made thousands of dollars more selling prints. All of the money went to fight the federal government, and finally, after 17 years in the judicial system, a U.S. Claims Court awarded the estate of Wayne Hage more than $4 million in compensation. It ruled that the government violated the 5th Amendment; a landmark ruling with major implications for all ranchers. Sadly, Hage died before he was able to realize the victory.
The fight continues, thanks to the non-profit that Swanson and Hage set up called Stewards of the Range. It shares its name with Jack’s painting with a mission to restore property rights in America and give ranchers the legal voice to fight back when environmentalists come hollerin’. “The government should never tell an old, leather-faced vaquero how to run his cattle,” Jack says. “Ranchers took the best care of land there ever was. They wouldn’t overgraze it and screw it up. That was their living.” Stewards of the Range now has thousands of diverse members nationwide.
Jack’s spent his whole life preserving the old west with every tug on a rein and every stroke of his paintbrush. You could call him a good ol’ boy and he probably wouldn’t care. But he’s really a good man with a good heart who loves the country, his horses and his family. Jack’s son and daughters have their own homes at Whiffle Tree, and they’ve started families, too. Jack is now helping to raise his seven grandchildren. He still paints and rides horses at his ranch. And at age 85, you’ll still find him at cattle brandings throughout Monterey County. After more than a decade of work, Swanson just finished his memoir – a 200+ page book full of personal anecdotes and painting stories, along with gorgeous full-color reproductions of his work. Jack Swanson: The Life and Times of a Western Artist is out now in hardback and can be purchased here.
Swanson is a living cowboy legend who’s inspired many by his agility on a horse and his ability on a canvas. He’s been a mentor to ranchers who’ve fought to regain their property rights from environmentalists with a misguided cause. And he’s done all of this without a high school diploma. Jack Swanson is proof that you should never let an education get in the way of your learning. While common sense can take you places, it’s horse sense that can guide you much further.
Written by: Ben Bamsey