BY XANDE ANDERER
When you look at one of John Phelps’ paintings, there is little question where his inspiration comes from. His muse lies in the Rocky Mountain rangelands near his home in Dubois, Wyoming—the scenic badlands and the mountain ranges that frame it. His muse scales the high peaks of the Absaroka Range and trudges along the Wind River.
Phelps paints an occasional maritime scene or still life, but the bulk of his work—indeed, the very essence of his work—centers on the Great American West. Phelps records with oil and canvas the cowboys, ranchers, Native Americans, and mountain men of that great American epoch. He depicts the wildlife that brought them there: bison, elk, and bighorn sheep.
John Phelps’ paintings have an air of authenticity that can only come from an artist with intimate knowledge of his subject. After attending the University of Wyoming in Laramie, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and did a tour in Vietnam. Phelps then returned to the Cowboy State where he became a trail guide for elk and bighorn sheep hunters, all the while perfecting his craft and amassing a limitless amount of reference material.
The region is home to the largest herd of bighorn sheep in the lower 48 states. A lifetime spent on horseback, hunting, and fishing is what gives such authenticity to his work. Phelps even looks the part; with his walrus moustache and goatee, cowboy hat, and western wear, he could easily be mistaken for one of the subjects of his paintings.
After four decades of artistic growth, Phelps has come into his own. His oils can fetch up to $35,000 and his works are frequently named best of show when they are exhibited. His paintings have been published as commemorative posters for events such as Wyoming’s Centennial Celebration and Jackson Hole’s Old West Days. Phelps is also in high demand for privately commissioned paintings.
But, as is the case with many artists, the success of his oil paintings brought with it a desire for new challenges. Phelps turned to sculpture and began producing limited-edition bronzes in the 1990s. Although the medium was new to Phelps, his subject matter remained familiar: cowboys and frontiersmen, and the wildlife around them. The success of these small pieces led to large-scale commissions: a monumental rendition of Lenoir-Rhyne University’s black bear mascot, a nine-foot statue for the Fremont County Veterans Memorial, for example.
Perhaps most personal of all his bronzes are the eponymous “Phelps Awards.” The award, each of which features a small bronze helmet, was created by Phelps for the Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Plaza in New York City. The award is named for both the artist and his son, Chance Phelps, a Marine who was killed in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2004. Phelps sees the award as the intertwining of veterans from different generations and of different wars. He was on hand in New York to present the first award to former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in May of 2005.
Chance Phelps was also the subject of HBO’s 2009 film Taking Chance. The film, starring Kevin Bacon, is based on the personal journal entries of Marine Lt. Col. Mike Strobl. Strobl volunteered to escort Chance’s body home to Dubois for burial and was so moved by the outpouring of emotion during the journey that he penned a 5,000-word essay. What began as an official trip report eventually became a viral Internet phenomenon as it circulated throughout the military community.
HBO producer Brad Krevoy learned of Strobl’s essay while attending the funeral of a friend’s son, who also was killed in Iraq. The young Marine’s father handed him a copy of Strobl’s narrative. Krevoy, who up to that point knew nothing about the military’s escort procedure, contacted Strobl, and with the Phelps family’s blessing, brought the project to HBO.
Chance Phelps was the model for the statue his father created for the Fremont County Veterans Memorial. The memorial depicts a young World War II-era soldier looking down at the helmet of a fallen comrade. Now, Chance’s name will be among those engraved on the base of the sculpture, joining the other sons and daughters of Fremont County killed in action.
John Phelps has done a few military paintings in the past, and he says his son’s death will likely inspire him to do more. He painted a small 6" x 9" portrait of his son for an exhibition entitled “Faces of the Fallen,” which brought together portraits of the first thousand or so American servicemen and women killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. The award-winning exhibition was on display at Arlington National Cemetery from 2005-07 before finding a permanent home at the Pentagon. He has since painted “Sand Storm,” which depicts soldiers in action in Iraq.
Ironically, Phelps says he had not painted anything depicting the Vietnam War until he was commissioned for the cover of the September/October 2008 issue of The VVA Veteran. That painting, the original of which is now on permanent display at the VVA national office, depicts a scene from Philip Caputo’s memoir, A Rumor of War.
On August 1, Phelps will receive the VVA’s Excellence in the Arts Award at the 2009 National Convention in Louisville.