The sense of wildness and adventure that made games of “cowboys and Indians” so thrilling is re-emerging at a Mesa museum in a way grown-ups can appreciate.
“Lon Megargee: Legendary Prints of the Southwest” is a new exhibition at the Arizona Museum of Natural History that explores the work of Lon Megargee, the state’s original cowboy artist.
“He’s kind of an Arizona legend,” says Tom Wilson, director of the museum and the show’s curator. “He remade himself from an Eastern kid to a Western cowboy, and he did it legitimately. He worked as an active cowboy on ranches for years, learning firsthand what it was all about.”
Born in 1883, Megargee left his comfortable Philadelphia home at 13, headed for a harder, more exciting life in the Arizona Territory. He worked on a dairy farm and as a roper, bronc buster and foreman on ranches near Wickenburg and New River and in the Tonto Basin.
But he also made forays away from the wide-open spaces he’d grown to love, studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Los Angeles School of Art and Design.
Back in Arizona, Megargee began to capture through art the romance, independence and humor of cowboy life — a lifestyle that was rapidly vanishing even in his own lifetime.
“His work is just engaging. He had very good color sense, and he was a very good figurative artist. You get very accurate and perceptive movements in his animals and humans. He was also good at capturing lifeways in the black and white medium,” says Wilson.
Megargee may be best known for 15 murals he painted at the Arizona State Capitol in 1913-1914. They’re still there today. He also sold work to the then monolithic Santa Fe Railroad and created rich color paintings and bold, graphic wood block prints of Western people, animals and landscapes.
“He did one of the iconic pictures that became used by Stetson, an image of a cowboy giving his horse a drink of water from his cowboy hat. They picked that up in the 1920s, and that image still appears inside Stetson hats today,” says Wilson.
Megargee is also the namesake of one of the Valley’s long beloved restaurants, Lon’s at the Hermosa in Paradise Valley. Megargee built a simple adobe studio and home on the property in the early 1930s, and expanded it to serve as the Casa Hermosa guest ranch, a forerunner of today’s Hermosa Inn and a side business that supplemented his art income.
The show includes about 60 works, from oil paintings and wood block prints to ephemera, such as postcards, books and prints on scarves. The pieces are on loan from the private collection of Mr. and Mrs. A. P. Hays of Paradise Valley. The exhibition runs through Dec. 5.
If you go
What: See iconic work by one of Arizona’s most famous Western artists in “Lon Megargee: Legendary Prints of the Southwest,” on display through Dec. 5.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday
Where: Arizona Museum of Natural History, 53 N. Macdonald St., Mesa
Cost: $9-$10 adults, $8 students age 13 and older with school I.D., $6 children ages 3 to 12
Information: (480) 644-2230 or www.azmnh.org