Larry Zabel will be remembered far and wide as an incredible painter of western people, animals and landscapes, but here in the Madison Valley he’ll be remembered as a man who supported many causes and was a fast friend.
Zabel died last Tuesday at his home near McAllister. He was 82.
Zabel was born on a farm in Deer Creek, Minn. in 1930. His mother was a painter and taught him art at an early age.
The Zabel family moved to southern California when he was still young. Zabel continued to pursue his art.
In an interview last month, he explained that from an early age he knew he wanted to be a “cowboy painter.”
But the path to realizing his dream took him into the Navy, then to work for Douglas Aircraft and then back to work for the Navy to produce documentaries and illustrations. The Navy knew of his skill as a painter and sent him on four tours to Vietnam as a combat painter.
After retiring from the Navy, he moved to Montana in 1987 to follow his old dream of becoming a western painter. It didn’t take long before people around the West and the nation became familiar with his work.
“It was too late to be a real cowboy, but it wasn’t too late to be a reporter for the cowboy,” he said during the August interview.
When the Zabels moved to North Meadow Creek, they brought horses, dogs, cats and two buffalo, Zabel said in August.
“I had buffalo before Ted Turner did and my buffalo always got out,” he said with a smile.
The buffalo were catalysts to many friendships, Zabel said.
“Everybody has their own version of how they met the Zabels, but the buffalo are always part of the story,” he said.
Over the years Zabel got to know many of the ranchers around the Madison Valley and painted many of them into his paintings. He always felt it was a compliment when people would recognize subjects in paintings.
He was always a very genuine and generous person, said Dottie Fossel, president of the Madison Valley Medical Center Board. Over the years, Zabel donated several pieces of work to the medical center and his work can be seen displayed prominently in the new facility.
But Fossel will remember him fondly as a friend.
“He was a friend to so many people in the valley,” she said. “He knew everybody. No pretenses.”
Zabel used his artwork to help promote foundations and causes he believed in, including the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Mule Deer Foundation and the Madison Valley Ranchlands Group.
Zabel always donated a painting to the Madison Valley Ranchlands Group’s annual noxious weed fundraiser to be auctioned off. The painting always was the hallmark of the auction and raised vital money for the ranchlands group’s work in fighting noxious weeds, said Madison Valley Ranchlands Group weed coordinator Melissa Griffiths.
And though the paintings were always a generous donation financially to the group, the gift exemplified the generosity of the artist.
“He’s that on a personal level,” Griffiths said back in August. “He’s an incredibly humble and generous person.”
It was his humility that allowed him to make friends so easily, Fossel said.
“He was a national figure, but he was our hometown boy,” she said. “He was just with us in every endeavor that was meaningful to Madison Valley. I really, really enjoyed him as a friend.”
A memorial service for Zabel will be held Oct. 26 at Journey Church in Bozeman at 1 p.m.