The painting was of the Bear Creek Schoolhouse in days long gone by, with a family pulling up to the school in a wagon, under a sun-drenched blue sky and in the shadow of Sphinx Mountain.
For the painting’s creator, Larry Zabel, the work held a special bit of importance and got his memories flowing.
Zabel grew up in the small farming community of Deer Creek, Minn. and started school in a one-room schoolhouse, similar to the one at Bear Creek, at the tender age of four.
Zabel recently completed the painting “Bear Creek Schoolhouse” for the Madison Valley Ranchlands Group’s annual noxious weed fundraiser, which was held at the Bear Creek Schoolhouse east of Cameron on Saturday.
Zabel donates an original painting every year, but this year was a bit different. After illness confined him to the hospital, Zabel finished the painting in his hospital room. But he got it completed just in time for the fundraiser and the work brought $21,000 to the ranchlands group’s efforts to fight noxious weeds in the Madison Valley.
“To be able to do what he did last week in the hospital … that is amazing,” said Melissa Griffiths, weed coordinator for the Madison Valley Ranchlands Group. “It’s an incredible gift. It’s a show of his deep generosity and his belief in what we’re working for.”
For Zabel, the donation is simply supporting a group that is working toward the things he believes in – preserving the West and its traditions, people, wildlife and landscapes.
Zabel has earned a reputation as one of the finest western painters in the world and his passion and craft started at a young age with his mother back in Deer Creek.
He remembers her keeping him occupied by getting him to draw. She’d be bustling around the house and ask him to draw animals or farm scenes, then she’d critique him on his work. She worked with him on proportions, making sure his work was realistic.
“She had me so advanced by the time I got to school,” Zabel said.
When he was four, the school in Deer Creek didn’t have a kindergarten. He begged his parents to let him go to school with is older siblings and when he got there the first assignment was drawing.
His teacher asked him and the other younger children to draw a picture of their homes and what they did there.
“When she came back I had a barnyard full of pigeons and cows in the most elaborate scene you ever saw,” Zabel remembers.
The teacher was so impressed she let the 4-year-old stay on and saved the picture for years before giving it back to Zabel, who still has it.
From a very early age, Zabel knew what he wanted to be.
“I wanted to be a cowboy painter because Red Ryder was my comic strip hero,” he said with a smile.
But on the way to being a “cowboy painter,” Zabel had to conquer art school and then went to work as a commercial artist and visual information specialist with the Navy.
He and his family lived in California by this time and Zabel helped produce documentaries and illustrations for the Navy. It was a step back from real hands-on artwork, but he still worked at paintings on the side, which he would give to dignitaries who toured the Navy facilities where he worked.
Eventually, through these side projects, his skill was recognized and the Navy sent him to Vietnam as a civilian to go along on combat flights and missions and paint what he saw.
In total, he did four tours in Vietnam as a combat artist and at times was immersed in battle with soldiers and pilots. Some of his combat paintings are archived in the U.S. Navy Art Collection.
Most of his combat work focused on the air war.
“I flew in 28 different kinds of aircraft over there,” Zabel said.
His work in Vietnam was separate from his Navy job in California, but it got his artistic juices flowing again and he knew it was time to follow his childhood dream of being a cowboy painter.
Eventually he secured a retirement from the Navy and moved with his wife to the Madison Valley in 1987. The couple bought a home on North Meadow Creek.
The idea was to move to cowboy country and immerse himself in the culture and lifestyle of the cowboy and ranching world. It was a bold move for an artist that had yet to become famous.
“I had a really good job and all the security in the world,” Zabel said. “Coming up here was just a wild and crazy thing to do.”
But the move was a stroke of brilliance as Zabel was finally able to focus his artistic skills on the western ranching lifestyle, both modern and historic.
“It was too late to be a real cowboy, but it wasn’t too late to be a reporter for the cowboy,” he said.
In his technique, he tries to chronicle his subjects as realistically as possible.
“I tell it their way, with their horse and everything else,” Zabel said. “I wanted to do everything as realistic as possible.”
He paints real cowboys and real livestock and in doing so does quite a bit of work prior to getting out his paints.
“When I start throwing paint around, I’m halfway done,” he said.
His prep work includes taking thousands of pictures and doing quite a bit of research, talking to people who are either subjects of his work or involved in the scene he’s creating.
One of his favorite compliments is when people recognize either horses or cowboys in his paintings.
“A lot of times you can tell who my cowboys are by how they sit in the saddle,” Zabel said.
And as his fame as a western painter increased, so did his desire to give back to groups who promoted the way of life he’d treasured for so many years.
Along with the Madison Valley Ranchlands Group, Zabel has donated paintings to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Mule Deer Foundation and the Madison Valley Medical Center.
“I’d like to see this valley maintain its ranchland character,” Zabel said. “I don’t like to see it cut up into ranchettes any more than anyone else does. Trying to keep the West the West, that’s what I’m into.”
But ultimately, whether it’s an historic piece depicting Native Americans overlooking the Madison River, or a herd of elk watching a passing hunting party from the seclusion of the trees, or a cowboy carrying his tired dog home, Zabel is telling a story of Montana that resonates with a lot of people.
“I’m trying to preach the gospel of Montana to those poor miserable souls who live elsewhere,” he said with a wry smile.