The Cowboy Artists of America (CAA) had its first show in Phoenix in the early '70s.
Seeing the canvases of Joe Beeler's and other founding members of the CAA is what Rygh Westby says "lit the fire" under him to paint. Young cowpunchers at the time, he and Trish, his wife, were working for a rancher and art collector up in Winslow who told them about the show.
Returning home, Rygh painted a couple of his own. The first he traded for a saddle. The second went to a rancher-obstetrician who swapped it for delivering the couple's second child.
For some cowboy artists, the art comes first and the cowboy part is a distant second or simply the subject matter. Rygh's spurs go on every morning. The art flows simply from a passion to chronicle a certain way of life, his way of life, before it disappears forever.
Rygh was 2 years old when his parents first set him on top of a horse and 5 when he started riding alone - the same age as Trish on her first ride. He was born to a ranching family out of Western Canada; she was born to ranchers from Texas. Both of them had the love of horses and cattle built into them from the beginning.
The Westbys met at a rodeo. Married soon after, they worked for more than two decades as cowpunchers in the most beautiful regions of the West, ranch-raising their three children and spending their days together on horseback.
On the Padlock Ranch that spreads from Wyoming to Montana, they worked on the cowboy crew, running 12,000 mother cows in the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains.
In Colorado's pristine San Luis Valley, they worked the Baca Grant Ranch, a spread of 200,000 acres and 7,000 cows, backdropped against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and now part of a National Wildlife Refuge.
After hours, the cowboys they met, the horses and cattle they worked with, and the mountains and valleys they called home all became fodder for Rygh's brush and palette.
The first gallery to show his work was in Sheridan, Wyo., 70 miles from where he and Trish were ranching. Jackson Hole was the next stop, followed by showings south to Scottsdale and east to New York City.
Today, his paintings are in private collections around the world. Public collections include the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyo., and the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Mont.
A perfectionist, Rygh's illustrations are grounded in realism. During the early '80s, his drawings were on the covers of Western Horseman where it was hard to tell them from photographs.
That realism crossed over as he began working in bronze, a genre he considers easier than painting.
"Sculpting is where a real cowboy can nail someone who's not," says Rygh. "You'll find mistakes in their work, over-exaggeration, impossible positions, or they'll portray something behaviorally that a horse wouldn't do."
His limited edition bronze, Ain't a horse that can't be rode, is in the Museum of the Big Bend in Texas and in the Honda Motors collection in Japan. Fine details offer clues about the horse and rider.
"You can see this is a young horse by the snaffle bit; early in his training," explains Rygh. "The steep ground is typical of where cattle run in Arizona and where bat-wing chaps were worn early in the 20th century. The cowboy's rope is 'tied hard and fast', another Southwest tradition, as is the style of his saddle, and the big wide-brimmed hat. Not a lot left who can ride a bronc like this - that cowboy's an excellent rider, keeping his balance, and one hand left free."
The Westbys don't run cattle any more, but they still spend their days in the saddle on their ranch in Sedona. Their primary business is training and showing horses owned by private investors for whom they also broker horses, searching for show horse prospects or finished show horses.
For a complete brochure of Rygh Westby's bronzes, call Westby Ranch (928) 204-6416.