It’s late afternoon on a ranch just outside of Easton, Kansas, 50 miles northwest of Kansas City. Ten cowboys decked out in paisley shirts, silk bandanas and fringed leather gloves drive a herd of horses through a pond. It’s like a movie set. But, instead of a film crew, artists are behind all the cameras. They’re here to take reference pictures to use as inspiration once they get back in the studio.
In the late 1800s, iconic painters like Frederic Remington could see the Old West for themselves. Today's artists have to find ways to recreate it. Robert "Cowboy" Culbertson owns American Frontier Production. And if it all feels like a movie, it might be because Culbertson is a veteran rider and wrangler. He’s worked on many Hollywood sets. He says creating scenes like this might look easy, but it’s not.
“Those horses are coming through that water and they don’t want to be there," Culbertson says. "They want out of there. Cowboys are pushing them. It’s going to be extreme, but it makes awesome paintings."
Seven years ago, Culbertson built a town on eighty-two acres of prairie. There’s a saloon, a dry goods store and a hitching post to park your horse. Down the road is a log cabin and a sod house.
“It’s original prairie at the top of the hill and there’s a different flower every month," says Culbertson. "It’s about as natural as you’re going to get. We try not to do anything. We had these ponds and stuff to add drama and create action for the artists but we’re trying to recreate history here so we try to keep it as it would have been.”
Culbertson says his reenactors share his enthusiasm for history.
“They’re just being old cowboys and loving what they do," Culbertson says. "I mean they all have regular jobs. When they come out here, this is fun. They’re doing what they love.”
“For a Western artist, this is just dreamland,” says Gregory Mayse. He’s a Western and Wildlife Artist from Fort Collins, Colorado. He’s spent the past two days photographing reenactors.
“I can pick and choose the models that I want, and what I want them to wear, and whether I ask them to ride at me full speed or ride through town, they’re happy to do that,” Mayse says.
Taking photos is just the first step. Once Mayse gets back to his studio, he'll use these images to inspire him.
“Some of them I’ll paint just as I photograph them because I’m happy with the subject and the lighting. Sometimes I’ll make little changes, or I’ll change the season," says Mayse. "I’ll change it to winter, or the lighting on it to kind of create a more dramatic look, or add little elements or take little elements out.”
Sarah Elder is repairing a leather shirt in the the Overland Freight building, which also serves as the wardrobe department. She says this stretch of territory between Atchison and Leavenworth played an important role in shaping the West.
“There’s a lot of that pioneer, military, native history in this border region of Missouri and Kansas,” Elder says.
Elder spent nearly three decades working as a curator at the St. Joseph Museums. She scours auctions and thrift stores for period costumes and details that help make a scene authentic.
“There were thousands of pioneers, thousands of overland immigrants who traveled between the Missouri River and Oregon and California, and so this is kind of a way to honor them. And these Western artists do a fantastic job,” says Elder.
Robert Culbertson says his goal is to find ways to bring history to life for the artists who celebrate it.
“Bringing a herd all the way from Texas up to a railhead in Dodge City, Ellsworth or someplace like that — I mean that’s a major accomplishment," says Culbertson. "They were out there in the elements and surviving. The stampedes were real. The river crossings were real, outlaws trying to steal the herd. You was taking your life in your own hands but when it was over you had accomplished something most people only dream about.”
Mark Childress sits astride his horse in a group of reenactors. He’s wearing a black bandana and a long handlebar mustache. Behind them, the sun is setting behind the tall grasses. He’s been in the saddle all day.
“All the artists got their own style of painting, which is amazing to see," Childress says. "Because a lot of times they’ll post it on social media, Facebook and so you get to see their styles — and paintings of yourself on there. So it’s a pretty amazing deal.”
It’s a demanding job and they have to be ready to ride at a moment's notice.
“They will find all of a sudden the light is perfect," says Childress. "You’ve got to be ready to go get that shot for them that they’re looking for.”
The important thing, Childress says, is that they always have a good time.
“Times like that when it’s raining, and they’re waiting for sunlight or something, we will entertain and give them all a good laugh and a good time," say Childress with a hearty laugh. "That is for sure. We do that time and time again.”
Childress says working with artists is a collaboration he enjoys.
“I’ll be thinking about the next one all summer long," says Childress. "Oh yeah. I mean just to get back up here and to do what we do for the artists. We all look forward to it.”