Artist Mick Harrison Brings the Final Days of the Frontier Back to Life
By Nyla Griffith
CREDIT: Mick Harrison
Strolling down Main Street Deadwood, it isn’t always easy to imagine the West as it was in 1876. The buildings reflect a stately turn-of-the-century, Victorian architecture, bricks laid in hopes of staving off fire and flood. Even if we could still touch the rough hewn pine of the false fronts that once adorned the street it might still be difficult to fill in the details. Historic photographs captured blurry, grey images of bearded men and stationary structures, but the colors of the Old West remain only in the visions of artists like Mick Harrison.
Harrison paints the romance of an era that has slipped away, the colors of a world that has been changed by technology and industrialization. He brings to life the spontaneous adventures as well as the incredible loneliness of the cowboys and frontiersmen who tamed the vast grasslands and invaded the mysterious Black Hills with not much more than a good horse and a solid rifle. A time period that changed men as much as they changed the world around them, when horses were replaced with machines and communications turned from pen and paper to wires strung overhead.
Born in Mobridge, S.D., Harrison preferred the openness of his grandfather’s nearby cattle ranch, where he milked cows and helped to harvest wheat, to the confines of a small town. Time on the ranch turned his head to the rodeo where he and the “Bender Boys,” neighbors from a nearby ranch, tried their hand at riding broncs and bulls. They were inspired by Benny Bender, a well-known rodeo clown and uncle to the boys.
“I had a lot of fun riding in the rodeo,” Harrison confesses, “but I really went for the dance! I knew I wasn’t good enough to get the buckles, but it helped when I started painting.”
Harrison’s experiences on the ranch and with the rodeo are evident in his paintings. He also has acquired a working knowledge of the time period he loves to paint the most – 1920 to 1940. He explains that even the horses looked different back then. They were mostly open range days, when horses were used as a tool for ranching. Bred for endurance, stability and agility, the animals weren’t regarded as pets and didn’t exhibit the perky, pretty lines of modern horses. Harrison’s horses carry their roman noses proudly.
But horses aren’t the only part of Harrison’s paintings that are authentic. He’s studied saddlery, clothing and other everyday artifacts.
“I research quite a bit,” Harrison explains. “I get a lot online from photographs, but I also get a lot from museums, like the Miles City, Montana Museum. Museums are a wealth of information. The Spearfish Heritage Center is really nice too.”
Working a variety of jobs after a three-year stint in the U.S. Army and the Vietnam War, from collecting for a finance company to painting houses, he was unfulfilled and wandered until he got a job as a graphic artist for Rockwell International in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. But drawing engineering schematics and aircraft instruments only led him to begin painting fine art at home and he fell in love. In 1974 he submitted a painting to a western magazine and they bought the use of it for their cover for $100. With success ringing in his ears and the Franklin in his pocket, he marched into Rockwell the next day and gave his notice. His new wife followed suit and they headed back to South Dakota, happy and broke.
The first year he painted full-time, Harrison earned only $3,000 and had to trade paintings to pay for the birth of his two daughters.
“They cost me some artwork,” he jokes.
While he did some cowboying to make ends meet, his love of fine art wouldn’t allow him to abandon painting. He entered fine art shows and sold work to western magazines. He recovered all of the original art sold to the magazines and sold them again, this time to an attorney in Sioux Falls who later donated them to the Center for Western Studies, where the paintings now reside.
Each of his paintings holds a dear place in his heart, although his sentiment is tempered by economy. Harrison says he wished he had kept many of the pieces he’s sold over the years, but he recognizes that finished pieces must pass on from the artist.
All the same, one particular painting still sticks in his thoughts. Finished in 1976, it is a 3’ x 5’ oil-on-masonite depicting an American Indian riding a horse pulling a travois with a young boy as passenger. It is set in the early morning or early evening on a distinctively South Dakotan landscape. He took the painting to a lot of shows and it won many awards, although its $125 price tag didn’t inspire any buyers. Finally, after years of showing the painting, it sold for $2,500 to a buyer from Las Vegas. The Shaman Gallery in Hot Springs bought it at auction, and now has it for sale for $15,000.
“At the time I painted it I didn’t even have a car. I used my Mother’s old Plymouth and I couldn’t get it in the car. So I had to take it out of the frame each time I took it to a show so it would fit in the backseat. The frame would fit over the seat and around my head as I was driving, but it all fit!” Harrison remembers with a laugh.
Recently Harrison has illustrated Cowboy Life: The Letters of George Philip, a compilation of letters written by a well-known South Dakota cowboy edited together by Cathie Draine, Phillips’ granddaughter. His artwork illustrates the time of the letters’ creation from 1899 to 1904.
The Blue Dog Gallery in Lead now displays and sells the majority of Harrison’s paintings. John Humphrey, gallery owner, carefully frames each painting to match the time period as well as enhance the beauty of the painting itself. He has even been able to frame at least one of them in a frame carved from a single, solid piece of wood, without any miter cuts.
“Mick’s paintings sell very well,” Humphrey explains. “I attribute that to the Western theme he executes so beautifully.”
He spent his younger days searching for his niche, but now, as a successful fine artist, Harrison is settled in the Northern Black Hills, content to paint for his living, giving people a glimpse of the West as it once was.
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