The following is an excerpt from my book Shadows on the Mesa-Artists of the Painted Desert and Beyond.
Considered Arizona’s First Cowboy Artist, it was said Alonzo Megargee III once aspired “to be an arty artist, complete with smock and beret. But there were two obstacles: his own nature and that of the Arizona Sonoran Desert.”
After his first trip to the Grand Canyon State at the age of thirteen, Philadelphia native Megargee returned to Arizona again in 1899 determined to become a cowboy. He worked at various ranches over the next several years before founding his own spread in New River, which he dubbed Rancho 51. After a brutal three year drought forced him to cease the operation, he decided to pursue a full time art career. He returned first to the East where he attended the Pennsylvania Academy, then the West where he studied at the Los Angeles School of Art and Design.
During the next two decades Megargee was in and out of Arizona while traveling extensively throughout the United States, Mexico and Europe, working at various times as an exhibition roper, bronco buster, cowboy, fireman, poker dealer, Art Director for Paramount Studios, and newspaper sketch artist. But the lure of the desert never abated and by the late 1920s he had returned to Arizona permanently.
Although Megargee’s personal life was largely one of an itinerant adventurer who could count numerous occupations, wives and homes, as an artist he was a dedicated perfectionist who was continually raising the bar. His versatility and desire to move in new directions resulted in quality works done in a range of styles, including illustrative, impressionistic, and expressionistic.
In 1913 Megargee persuaded Governor George Hunt and the state legislature to approve a commission that would inextricably link his name with Arizona history.
On February 5, 1913, almost exactly one year after Arizona had become the 48th state in the Union, Megargee sent a letter to Hunt which included some proposed sketches for a series of murals to adorn the newly built State Capitol Building in Phoenix. In the letter he stated “I’m confident I could do it better than anyone because I know Arizona. Have lived in the big out of doors –in her mountains and her deserts nearly all of my life.”
In his formal recommendation for Megargee as the muralist, Hunt noted with some exaggeration, “Mr. Megargee…is a native Arizonan who has passed his life in the deserts and mountains of our state, making a study of those landscapes and topographical features by virtue of which he is able to make his work peculiarly distinctive and true to nature in her Arizona phases.”
His work and artistic legacy clearly identified with the state he loved most, Megargee lived out the last two decades of his life in Cave Creek, Phoenix and Sedona. He died in Cottonwood, Arizona in 1960.
Although I wrote the above several years ago one conclusion I held remains the same: Arizona’s first Cowboy Artist loved the state of Arizona. So of course it would only be fitting and proper the most extensive collection of Lon Megargree’s art work is in… Texas?
That’s right, Texas. Not just anywhere in the Lone Star State, but waaaay down south on the Rio Grande (well almost.) We’re talking Lonesome Dove Country (well almost again), which makes the existence of a large Lon Megargee collection somewhere other than Arizona slightly more understandable.
(I know at least one of you might be thinking, “Hey wait a minute, what about the Hermosa Inn’s Collection?” Good point. But keep watching.)
I first made the acquaintance of Byron Jay Lewis circa 2006, during the real estate go-go days prior to the 08 meltdown. Both Byron and his wife, Keely, are native born Texans with an affinity for works of Western artists considered highly collectible, yet still underappreciated given the quality of their oeuvre. In addition to Megargee, the collection features works by Lew Davis, Tom Lea, Marjorie Reed, Ed Mell and Mark McDowell, among others.
Earlier this year my wife, Barbara, and I were fortunate enough to finally make a long overdue visit to the Lewis’s ranch “somewhere north” of McAllen, Texas and see their collection in person.
Needless to say it was an enjoyable and educational experience for both Barbara and me. It truly was an Arizona cowboy’s and cowgirl’s dream.
Speaking of a Cowboy’s Dream, that’s the title of the painting shown below. At least four different original versions are known to exist. This one was reproduced as one of five advertising posters for Phoenix based A-1 Beer in the late 1940s. The posters are still sought after by collectors today.
Below: “The Critics”…one of my all time favorites
Below left: Sedona. Below Right: San Francisco Peaks Ghost Tree.