Russell Houston knows when he's fallen into a good thing. But
he's puzzled by the success he has achieved as the creator and
sole practitioner of a category of Western painting called
cowboy golf art. His niche: Old West scenes of cowboys hitting
golf balls. "I know it's corny," says the 42-year-old painter,
who lives in remote Eagar, Ariz. (pop. 4,025). "But it's really
Houston was making a modest living as a painter of traditional
Western scenes when his career doglegged onto the golf course in
1993. His wife, Kristi, was leafing through a book commemorating
the 75th anniversary of Arizona's statehood when she spotted a
photograph, circa 1910, of two cowboys, horses in tow, playing
golf. It was taken near the now vanished southern Arizona mining
town of Russellville on an also vanished course built for miners.
"You'd be surprised how many cowboys I know who carry their
clubs around in the backs of their pickups," says Houston, who
was intrigued by the old photo. "I knew I wanted to paint this."
His work Hazard on the Fourth Hole depicts the same scene the
photo does, except for the addition of a bull that is about to
charge as one of the cowboys lines up a putt.
Kristi took the painting to Trailside, a Scottsdale gallery that
specializes in Western American realist art. There the painting
sat on the floor for a week before Kristi got a call from the
gallery, asking her to take it back. Maryvonne Leshe, who was
then the gallery's director and is now its owner, thought
Russell's work needed to "mature" before the gallery could
represent him. But three days later the gallery called again,
telling Kristi that the wife of a Sprint executive wanted to buy
it, which she eventually did for $5,800.
"I pushed for the gallery to represent Russell from the start,"
says David Wilkinson, who was a shipping clerk at Trailside in
1993 and is now its director. "It's unique, and he brings real
humor to his work."
Houston got national exposure that same July when Golf
Illustrated magazine featured Hazard on the Fourth Hole and
printed a phone number for readers wanting to order prints. The
Houstons were swamped with 400 calls. "Out of the blue we were
running a business off the dining-room table," says Kristi. "It
took off from there and hasn't stopped."
Since then Houston has done six other cowboy-golf paintings. The
originals have sold for $5,000 to $8,000, and the signed prints
cost about $45 each.
For each painting Houston travels into Arizona's backcountry
with a portly mule trainer, Charley Coppinger, and a lean
blacksmith, Wayne Ramey, friends he photographs as a hapless
twosome. After returning home, Houston does a sketch, and from
that the painting. "I see Wayne and Charley as the Laurel and
Hardy of Western art," says Houston. "Nothing goes right for
them." In one composition, Chip Shot, Coppinger prepares to play
his ball out of a truly messy lie--a cow chip. In At the End of
His Rope, Ramey tries to play his shot after being lowered onto
Kristi oversees the business, licensing prints that are sold at
200 stores across the nation. One in four phone orders is from
Texas, but the Houstons have received calls from Australia and
Early this year a man who worked on an oil rig in the North Sea
called the Houstons to say he was being transferred to South
America and needed a replacement print of At the End of His
Rope. The caller said his coworkers on the rig wouldn't let him
take his print with him.
The Houstons do little advertising, relying mainly on word of
mouth and their toll-free number: 800-776-1594. They market
cowboy-golf greeting cards and have a calendar on the drawing
board, and Houston would like to do a book of Western golf
stories featuring Wayne and Charley.
"There are all these traditional Western scenes I have in mind
to paint. But we've created this machine. Kristi has to keep
reminding me to stick to the golf art."
Leo W. Banks, whose golf game is miserable, could provide
Houston with inspiration any day.
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT TROYANOS Coppinger, playing his ball from a cow chip, and Ramey (rear) pose as old-time hackers for Houston. [Russell Houston displaying his painting Chip Shot as Wayne Ramey and Charley Coppinger re-enact scene behind him]