Duke of Duality: Cowboy Artist Duke Beardsley
Truth be told, it’s been a minute since Duke Beardsley spurred out of the box at a team roping.
“But it’s funny,” he said. “when I see it, I still get kind of edgy. It’s fun to be around and I did love doing it.”
Beardsley, 50, came to terms with a few things team roping nearly 25 years ago, chief among them the potential to lose a digit.
“I am definitely not good enough to not get hurt. People will ask why I quit roping and I’ll say, “I got good enough to cut my thumb off, and I kind of need it.'”
He does. Beardsley’s artistic accomplishments are many. His works reside at the Denver Art Museum and the Booth Museum of Western Art. In 2013, the Calgary Stampede commissioned his work for their famed poster and for more than 15 years, Beardsley participated in the Coors Western Art Exhibit & Sale. Being featured in the Buffalo Bill Art Show & Sale, as well as the C.M. Russell Museum’s The Russell Exhibition & Sale certainly add to his cowboy cred, too, not that he needs any help in that department.
Born in Denver, Beardsley is the descendant of a long line of Coloradans and ranchers. Growing up, pretty much any time that wasn’t spent in school—and even some time that was supposed to have been spent in school—was spent riding across the vast Eastern Colorado acreage of the family’s ranch.
“It’s a cool, beautiful part of the state, just out there east of Monument Hill on the Palmer Divide. It’s where the fingers of the Black Forest kind of spread out through that mesa country. Gorgeous country, and a pretty amazing, idyllic place to grow up as a kid.
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“I thin my grandfather was a past president of the Pike’s Peak Cattlemen’s Association. Dad and him and his brother ran a cow-calf operation out there, and they always had big, old, hammer-headed ranch horses around and it was just kind of what we did. I have memories of getting pulled out of school at the right time of the year and thrown up on a big, old horse out in the cold win and being told to ‘Keep up.’ I don’t know if we were doing a fall gathering or a winter weaning or what, but I got a lot of that kind of exposure as a kid.”
Iconic cowboydom captured Beardsley’s heart early on, and he responded to it with pencil and paper.
“When I was little, I thought Frederick Remington and I were kindred spirits. I was crushed—crushed—to find out that he’d been dead since 1909. And Charles Russell, too. There guys were telling a visual story that connected with my mind at age 9 and 10 and it was so overwhelmingly like, ‘This is my thing,’
“Drawing is the thing that I’ve always had and it’s how I’ve processed and expressed the world for myself, by family lore, since really early on. And that’s my true love. I mean, I love to paint, too. I really do. But, drawing is how I process the stuff. It’s where the images come from. When I go ride with friends and do horseback work, the stuff I experience during the day first comes out as a drawing or a series of drawings.”
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For this reason, Beardsley categorizes his paintings as painted drawings and it’s on these canvases that his audience gets to see the seemingly contradictory nature of his formative years, with significant time spent in both urban Denver and Eastern Colorado, come together (an upbringing he refers to as “dual” and “duel,” depending on perspective). For instance, it’s not uncommon for Beardsley to feature traditional, working cowboy figures and ranch scenes amidst modern, bright, Andy Warhol-type colors and style.
The duality reaches beyond the canvas, though, and exists first, perhaps, within Beardsley himself, who is at once welcoming and convivial, while also exercising great care to communicate his beliefs, opinions and ideas with a worldly and sensitive intelligence.
In short, it’s a little too easy to sum up Beardsley’s work as the meeting place for opposites: New and old; traditional and contemporary; here and there; rural and urban. Rather, the elements exist together in real time. Not in juxtaposition, but in partnership, as one cohesive work.
“For me,” Beardsley said of growing up, “it was kind of like, why do these two worlds exist together and apart? It’s an old model in the West, in general, I think, but it’s certainly an old model in my family. Ranches coincided with day jobs in town, which often afforded the ranch. So, my great-grandfather was a banker and a merchant and a rancher, and my dad was a developer and a rancher. It’s normal to me.
“Now, as an adult who paints contemporary Western art, I see the beauty in it. Like, what an amazing opportunity, I think—with a foot on either side of the line.”
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In a way, Beardsley’s path to contemporary Western art was a series of apparent contradictions, too. He left home for a liberal arts college in the Northeast (where, he fondly recalls, discovering team roping dominated by Vermont’s dairymen—“Holy smokes they were fast”), and ultimately ended up on the opposite coast at the ArtCenter College of Design. In between the two, he joined the Ski Patrol in a Colorado mountain town and then decided to take his EMT certification to the next level and become a Los Angeles-area, pre-med student.
Through it all, though, Beardsley was merely seizing the opportunities he encountered.
“Maybe that’s kind of the curse of the way I’ve been wired,” Beardsley offered. “I recognized I had an amazing opportunity, so I went for it, and I’ve got to take advantage of these opportunities. I have no idea where they’re going to land me, but I’m not going to miss the opportunity.”
Given the cowboy artist’s successes, hindsight suggests his opportunistic approach has worked well for him and it too—along with Beardsley’s penchant for uniting elements of opposites—is shared through his work.
“My goal is to walk away from this thing and leave you and the painting an opportunity to have your own dialogue, your own relationship.”
“And because of my love for this icon,” Beardsley continued. “Without question. Childhood hero worship, for sure. It has taken everything I’ve thrown at it with no problem. Nothing but style and charisma coming back at me from the icon itself, so I feel empowered to keep trying. I don’t want to jinx it, but, maybe for all of us: Follow your gut. Follow your heart. At some point you have to say, ‘I’m going to give this a try.’”
To see more from Duke Beardsley:
• Instagram and Facebook: @dukebeardsleystudio
• In Scottsdale and Jackson Hole: Altamira Fine Art, altamiraart.com