Art of the Open Range
“I love the lifestyle and I’ve had a lifelong interest in art.”
[Florence, Colorado, 2008] He’s lived it. He IS it—an artist of the open range. “A lot of people don’t know what open range really is, or if they do have an idea, don’t realize it still exists,” said Mergelman. But you’ve only to drive down a western highway, like in Texas, Nevada, Wyoming, Colorado, when a cattle drive is in progress to experience it. “They’ve got some new rules now, but a lot of cowboys still go out and move cattle around in the summertime. I used to push cows through a lot of places, Gunnison, Crested Butte.” Mergelman worked the Howard ranches between Gunnison and Lake City after his family sold their ranch near Blue Mesa. (It’s now under the lake created by damming up Gunnison River in the 1960s.) “The toughest part was keeping them out of people’s gardens.”
A fourth generation cattleman, Mergelman’s great-grandparents homesteaded the Iola Valley coming here directly from Germany and making the cross country trek from the east coast by wagon. According to a recently-recovered letter written by his great grandmother, Mergelman discovered: “They spoke and read English when they arrived here. She writes about their first crop of potatoes, taken to Denver by wagon, traveling through the San Luis Valley and Buena Vista. There was no Monarch Pass then. It took them all summer. They brought three families back with them that fall when they came back home. Their nearest neighbors were 30 miles away!”
Mergelman extols their courage. “The most difficult thing back then was crossing rivers and building bridges. A lot of people died, sometimes whole families. A lot of animals died, trying to get across the water. I’m just in awe of those people. They were self sufficient, courageous, independent. Some people still see those values in the American cowboy.”
That’s what Mergelman sees, too. “I was lucky enough to get to hear the old stories,” he said, “to work the cow camps, to get to work with teams and horses. My great granddad came here to farm, but when that didn’t work out, switched to livestock. My grandfather and my dad ranched and my mother’s people were dry-land farmers and ranchers. They came up from Baca County and settled around Littleton.” Mergelman was a cowboy, too, until the family sold the ranch, then he worked for neighboring ranches during summers and school holidays.
“I love that lifestyle,” he said, “and I’ve had a lifelong interest in art.” (Mergelman studied it at Western State College where he graduated with a degree in Art Education, then taught art for awhile.) “Both are real important to me. I paint what I feel, what I know that lifestyle is all about.”
One of Mergelman’s true heroes, and the subject behind a lot of his art, is Charlie Goodnight, immortalized as “Captain Call” of Larry McMurtry’s best-selling book (and movie), Lonesome Dove. “Old Charlie was one of our first true western cowboys out here,” said Mergelman. “He brought cattle out of Texas and up to Cheyenne, through Walsenburg and Pueblo. He was the area’s first big cattle baron. He invented the chuckwagon and cattle drives. Charlie came to Cañon City, sold cattle here, was some kind of a land dealer. There’s a lot of history in old Charlie Goodnight, and a lot of that is what I paint.”
After a stint at teaching art, and finding he’d rather do it than teach it, Mergelman moved to the Cañon City area where he spent sixteen years working in design, advertising and marketing, working for a toy company, then a gift company (his day jobs) and perfected his art. He had his own gallery back in Gunnison for awhile, and has shown in galleries around the west, where his art is well known, before opening his own Sagebrush Gallery in Florence, Colo.
“I love it!” he said. “We (his wife, Darleen, and he) meet an incredible bunch of people. People who come in here (the gallery) have the same interests in this lifestyle that we do. Somebody might come in here and there’ll be six or seven cowboys standing around, tellin’ stories. It’s great!”
You bet. It is great, and what Mergelman has done and continues to do, preserving a fast-disappearing, nostalgic way of life, is also incredible. The man is larger than life, our own, modern-day Charlie Goodnight. Come out to the gallery, sit a spell on the bench with him (outside or in) and he’ll spin you a few of those stories himself. You’ll be riding the open range in no time.
Rudl paints and shows at his Western & Wildlife Art at his Sagebruch Studio, Florence CO. For an appointment or to view his work, call 719-784-0607, or visit his website: http://www.westernandwildlifeart.net/