Fred Harman, who died in 1982, was one of the founders of the Cowboy Artists of America. In addition to becoming one of the country's foremost painters of the American West, he was also the creator of the world-famous cartoon strip, "Red Ryder and Little Beaver." Fred Harman was also an established sculptor and illustrator. He was likewise a great humanitarian.
Recognition and real success came slowly to Fred Harman, but his optimism and perseverance never lagged. He was born in St. Joseph, Missouri in 1902, but his parents moved to Pagosa Springs, Colorado when he was just 2 months old. His father had previously homesteaded in Pagosa in 1891. His life really began in the land of cowboys and Indians what with Ute, Apaches and Navajos living in the same proximity as the ranchers.
During those early years, Harman seemed to be in and out of Missouri a great deal. Apparently he exercised his artistic talent from the very beginning as his first printed picture appeared in a St. Joseph newspaper when Harman was only 6 years of age. The self-taught painter was not as happy in school as he was on ranches or when he was drawing. After 7 years of formal education, he dropped out of school and ultimately joined the army. It was the time of World War I.
1922 found Fred Harman in Kansas City working at his first commercial art job. He was one of three cartoonists making film ads for a moving picture company. Fred and one of the other cartoonists, Walt Disney, formed their own company, but, alas, they went broke after a year. Disney went to California to pursue a career and Harman returned to his beloved Colorado.
Not much later, the struggling young artist was back in St. Joseph. The short-lived Pony express had been founded in that city in 1861 and though it only survived for a mere 18 months, it created enough interest and excitement to make its own niche in the lore of Western Americana. It was only natural that Fred would be interested in this brief chapter on history. He did a goodly amount of artwork related to that subject including illustrating pertinent books. He even designed the costumes for an MGM film about The Pony Express. It was during this period that he met pretty young Lola Andrews, a musician. On their very first date, Fred took Lola to the Premier of "The Pony Express" film.
A year later, Fred married his Lola and in 1927 they were expecting their first child. Fred was working for Artcrafts Engraving Company at the time, which was owned by William H. Guenther Sr., and lucky thing too, because when it was time to pay the hospital bill for baby Fred (Fred Harman, III), he didn’t have enough money. Fortunately, William Guenther bought a painting from him for about $50 which was just enough to cover that bill!
By the end of the 1920's the young family was in St. Paul, Minnesota where Harman entered a partnership to form an advertising business. Three years later, he took his family to Colorado where he and Lola built their own log cabin on the San Juan River.
Misfortune loomed again in the form of the National Depression. Fred Harman, like so many others was broke! Fred had two younger brothers, each of whom was a good artist in their own right. Earlier they had gone to Hollywood and made a success of animated cartoons. They had their own studio and produced the popular Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes. So, Fred loaded up his canvases and went to Hollywood.
Harman had a big exhibit of his work at the Stendahl Art Galleries in Los Angeles, but not one piece was sold. Not very encouraging for a young artist but it didn't get Harman down, instead he decided that he would do a comic strip and he created "Bronc Peeler". Since no one else was interested in presenting the strip, Fred syndicated it himself, and again went broke.
All was not in vain, however, as his work caught the attention of Eastern publishers and he went to New York City. Fred worked diligently in the big city during the winters until he made enough money to buy the land that became the nucleus of his ranch near Pagosa Springs, Colorado. The climax of this period was his creation of the cartoon strip, "Red Ryder and Little Beaver."
Success at last! The Scrips-Howard Newspaper chain presented Harman with a 10 year contract and "Red Ryder" was virtually an overnight sensation. The cartoon strip appeared in 750 newspapers with 40 million readers -- then came a radio show, 38 movies, and 40 commercial products. By 1938 Fred Harman had all the commissions he could handle.
Fred Harman continued to draw "Red Ryder" until 1963. By then he needed all the time he could have in order to do his painting. His first series of paintings sold out quickly including the preliminary sketches. By 1965 he was the most widely known living artist portraying the American West. Also by this time, Harman was well known and loved by his fellow "cowboy artists". In that same year, 1965, 5 of them came together in Sedona, Arizona and founded the "The Cowboy Artists of America". In addition to Harman, the group included Joe Beeler, Charlie Dye, John Hampton and George Phippen. Fred was chosen as the first president of the new organization but deferred to Phippen.
Fred Harman loved his fellow man and it seemed that the greater his success became, the more time he somehow found to help others. He was particularly effective with children to whom he was a living hero. Organizations all over the country clamored for his attention and got it. This activity resulted in many awards and commendations. One of the many honors that he was especially proud of was being adopted into the Navajo Nation; one of only 75 white men in history to receive this unusual tribute.
(Reprinted out of the CAA Newsletter, Vol. 5 Issue 3. July 1986)
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