Secret Stash Feature for July 2020
I was inspired to create this month’s Secret Stash edition by a question I recently was asked: I’d like to ask about a recurring detail in your art. I’m curious about the appeal of the cowboy hat. It’s a rather distinctive detail that pops up on the heads of hunky studs who are being crucified or hanged, for example, and who may very well be wearing nothing else at all. Does the hat have any particular associations or meaning for you, or does it hold a certain fetish value? Is there are any real-life/historical examples or events that mesh with your fantasies or possibly trigger them? Or does your fantasy macho zone exist completely distinct from the real world?
Here are my answers:
In my art, the cowboy hat serves as an emblem. Also it’s a recurring visual statement about certain aspects of my vision of masculinity in visual art. The role the cowboy hat plays extends far beyond fulfilling the simple real-life function of covering the top of a man’s head and protecting his face from damaging sunburn.
Yes, a cowboy hat protects a man, but more importantly it calls attention to his face and in so doing emphasizes his masculinity. It can make him appear to be taller than he really is. It frames his face to give him a more confident look than he may actually show were he not wearing a cowboy hat.
When I put a cowboy hat onto the head of a particular character I create, I do so in order to exaggerate. The work I do is surreal. It is not really meant necessarily to be factual or real even while it may seem photorealistic. The overstatement or embellishment that I put into the depiction of characters can be focused upon different things. I may want to call attention to his attempt to distract people from considering him as youthful when he really wants to be considered mature or demonstrate credbility as a genuine man rather than being merely a boy. The word cowboy has always been a way to convey the truth about a guy’s youthful inexperience in this world and his rowdiness so common to boys’ behaviors.
I was a young boy when I first got introduced to the concept of cowboys. Walt Disney deserves much of the credit or blame for shaping my sensibilities in those formative years. I saw boys my age in glorious black and white on television and quickly learned what it means when a guy wears a cowboy hat and other related costuming.
Disney’s television and motion picture depictions of males who wore cowboy costumes taught me many lessons I carried with me into adulthood. Such powerful visual lessons taught to me from Disney depictions proved to be hugely influential during my boyhood. No surprise I then was drawn to other non-Disney TV and movie Westerns which presented fictional and embellished portrayals of men: Sexy good looks; intense light-colored, mournful eyes; and unending bravado—all framed within the context of what happens when males wear cowboy costumes.
I was smart enough to recognize that these guys merely wore cowboy costumes, but the symbolic meanings were impossible for me to push aside as mere entertainment. The strongly masculine looks, big and thick hands, and most especially the bulge below the gun belt buckle all made indelible impressions upon me.
My parents took me to a professional photographer when I was younger than age 10. He dressed me up in a cowboy costume complete with cowboy hat and cowboy boots. I was overtaken completely by the imagery that had been chosen for me by adults for that photo shoot.
Soon afterwards I started having regular dreams about cowboys. I was not yet a teenager.
My cowboy dreaming included action and adventure scenes which reinforced some apparent and clear instinctive attraction I felt to imaginary violence and masculine dominance in the fictional realm. Specifically, the dreams I started consistently having in my preteen years involved cowboys in knife fights and cowboys being hanged by the neck until they were dead. Once I reached puberty, such cowboy dreams took on sexually arousing outcomes. I look back on the dreams as a benchmark. It seems to me that was the birth of a fetish within me that I turned into storytelling and artistry.
As a grown man I chose to put myself into a photo shoot in Deadwood, South Dakota. In the late 19th century, this Dakota Territory settlement was home to real-life cowboys Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok. When I got there, the real-life cowboys were long gone and the emphasis had switched from survival in the Wild West to getting tourists to spend their money on simulations of what once was.
At the point in my life when I arrived in Deadwood, I was capable of making my own deliberate choices as an adult. I wanted to appear wearing a cowboy costume in a photograph. I posed with a shotgun inside a Wild West bar next to an empty bottle of whiskey. This merged several visual metaphors of cowboy life and death into one singular moment in time captured forever on film. To this day that image represents me exceedingly well if you’re looking to become aware of truths about my storytelling and artistic sensibilities.
Whenever I create a visual depiction of a cowboy in the present day, I draw upon all that I brought forward from my childhood. From the depths of my subconscious has come a crystal clear awareness of how to depict male characters.
You can see such traits readily for yourself in my works. The cowboy hat frames this male character’s intense masculine confidence. He is unmistakably in charge and nobody likely will take advantage of him. Or so he may think.
His exaggerated masculinity is compelling and crystal clear in the macho fantasy world into which I inserted him. My intention was for the power of his manhood to demand that you pay attention to him when you gaze upon him. He is intended to be irresistible as a contemporary representation of a fantasy cowboy.
However, despite his appearance as formidable, this character is vulnerable. He is no match for two men coming after him with a knife and bad intentions.
Watching his life taken so abruptly is tragic, but you cannot look away. You won’t soon forget this outcome.
One final thought: I frequently get questions asking why I choose to create images that depict unpredictability, danger, personal peril, violence and death. I usually respond by saying such things exist rather obviously in the real world, so I see no reason why I should not depict these truths in my images.
Do some of the images I create disturb members of my audience? Yes, of course I recognize this is true.
But as I have already stated, the images I produce are not meant to be interpreted as reality. Do I choose to create fantasies that may offend some people? No, I actually don’t attempt to create disturbing or offensive images. I just create. What I create may happen to be troubling or offensive to some viewers. Others may find what I create enjoyable. I never start out thinking “how do I create something that will shock my audience?” How I work is I set my subconscious mind free and just go with what may flow out. I make myself totally receptive to images playing back from my dreams.