As a fan of the late, great Texas wildlife artist John Cowan — Jack as some knew him — there are many of the man’s sporting art prints that I’ve grown to admire over the years.
To start with, there’s Pintail Alley, the first work of Cowan’s that I ever laid eyes on, a gray painting of a cloudy morning as a pair of waterfowlers chased the bull sprigs that once made duck hunting famous on the Texas Gulf Coast.
There’s a shallow water saltwater flat somewhere along the middle coast, a weathered duck blind as scud clouds promise a glorious Gulf of Mexico sunrise, a black Labrador retriever with a mouthful of feathers, and a wintertime sky filled with the whistling wings of a 10-point puddle duck in a time where 100 points spelled a daily limit.
That I first saw the print in the Sportsman’s Restaurant one morning while shoveling in fresh scrambled eggs, bacon, and hash browns hardly matters. Because I was hooked as my friend Steve Hollensed and I listened to our guide’s instructions for the rag spread goose hunt that lay ahead that morning. Hooked on both Cowan’s artistic magic hanging from the grease spattered wall and on the hunting and fishing opportunities that I was beginning to discover between the Red River and the Rio Grande.
Over the years, there have been many other Cowan paintings that have caught my eye and reaffirmed my love affair with the Lone Star State’s outdoors riches, starting with the Rags to Riches snow goose hunting scene that harkens back to the heyday of coastal rice prairie goose hunting.
Unfortunately, it now takes a Cowan print to remember those days of deafening snow goose music. Why? Because such wingshooting pleasures have all but evaporated as Texas’ rice production — and the clouds of wintering snows and blues that once brought hunters by the thousands to Eagle Lake each winter — have shifted northeast into the prairies of eastern Arkansas.
There have been other memorable Cowan prints too, dabbles of oil on canvas that captured the essence of what it means to hunt and fish in treasured spots across the great state of Texas. Paintings with names that evoke all kinds of memories including Hot Tank, Too Soon, Autumn Snows & Blues, Magic Minutes, Windmill Whitetails, Hoggin’ Up, Releasing a Spawner, Tom Foolery, and so many, many more.
And don’t forget two of my all-time favorite Cowan prints, the quail hunting scene near Nocona dubbed Clay County Covey and the South Texas dove hunting classic known as The Waterhole. Hey St. Nick, either one of those will do just fine, double matted and framed with non-glare glass of course.
Whether purchased from a Ducks Unlimited or Coastal Conservation Association banquet — or from a sporting art dealer like Collector’s Covey in Dallas or Charlie’s Gallery in Houston — Cowan’s artwork remains in great demand 10 years after his death.
So much so that it continues to fill the homes, hunting camps, studies and offices of thousands across the Lone Star State, people that can take one look at the artist’s skillful brushstrokes and feel the wind, hear the waves, and whisper “I know that place!”
Because in many ways, they do, even if it really only existed in Cowan’s artistic mind.
After all, the late Cowan — who passed away at the age of 87 back in July 2008 — was a master at capturing the scenes that thrill the soul of a Texas sportsman. Things like a tailing redfish on a coastal flat. A covey of quail exploding noisily through the brush. Mourning doves riding a southerly breeze into a dwindling wet spot. Ducks over decoys, cupped and committed on a freshening north wind. And even springtime fishing for East Texas largemouth bass in a worn out aluminum jon boat.
Consider these words from a story that the late Ray Sasser — the longtime Dallas Morning News outdoors writer who passed away earlier this year after a long bout with cancer — penned shortly after Cowan’s brush grew still.
“If a person is really into the nuances of hunting and fishing, the subtle gestures that Jack captured in his paintings were just flawless,” said M.F. “Bubba” Wood, of Collector’s Covey fame, to Sasser.
“Nobody has even remotely approached the authenticity depicted in Jack’s work. It’s really special stuff.”
Indeed it is.
Which is why the social media news flash from earlier this week reawakened the intense feelings I have for the Texas outdoors and for those who have labored to capture its essence.
News that told of the death of one of Cowan’s famous subjects, outdoors retailer and rancher Bill Carter from the Houston area.
“Bill Carter, owner of Carter’s Country gun stores and a legendary figure in Texas deer hunting, passed away on Tuesday,” said the Facebook post by current radio personality and former Houston Chronicle outdoors writer Doug Pike.
“I learned most of what I know about deer hunting from Bill and was fortunate to hunt several times with him on his ranches in Texas and Colorado,” Pike continued.
“Bill was a staunch defender of the second amendment and supporter of wildlife conservation, and he made generous donations to organizations that carried those torches. I admired him, and like so many other deer hunters, will miss him.”
When I read that news from Pike, I paused and immediately thought of what I think of as perhaps the most famous print that Cowan ever did, the 1990 work known as Coming to Horns.
That print, as some of you might know, depicts a cactus filled South Texas deer hunting scene deep in the fabled Brush Country right at the height of the December rut.
There’s Carter, wearing his trademark cowboy hat, dutifully working a magnum set of rattling antlers, horns as the state’s hunters affectionately call them. Then there’s the hunter, the late Sasser himself, slowly raising a bolt action rifle up as he looks for a shot.
And then there’s a dark antlered Muy Grande buck, a burly giant working his way through the thorn-choked brush complete with a set of Boone and Crockett sized headgear. A bit nervous, a bit angry, the testosterone fueled whitetail is searching for the source of a backwoods sendero fight that really doesn’t exist.
Except on canvas, that is. And that’s why I thought about all of this the other day, sad in the knowledge that first Cowan, then Sasser, and now Carter, are all gone.
Three men who were legendary in Texas hunting and fishing circles, thanks to artistry with oils and a paintbrush, brilliance with the printed word, and a generous commitment to our sporting heritage as well as the vital habitat that wildlife and fisheries conservation demands.
While I only vaguely knew Sasser - and never was privileged to know the other two men at all — I’ll think of them often in my own remaining years, thanks to a timeless painting of a classic Lone Star State outdoors scene.
A haunting image where I sometimes think I can almost hear the December wind blow.