As a child in New Jersey, Bob Coronato would page through books about the frontier and wish he were born 100 years earlier. After high school, Coronato did go west, but to the roiling metropolis of Los Angeles and the Otis/Parsons College of Art and Design. In 1991, with two years of higher education under his belt, Coronato was on a family vacation in Spearfish, South Dakota, when he first visited the High Plains Heritage Museum. Inquiring about the lack of Remingtons and Russells, Coronato spoke with the curator who explained that the collection had recently been pulled. Coronato did the only appropriate thing for a starving art student and offered up his own paintings. He and the curator scheduled a show for the museum’s reopening.
Upon his return to Otis/Parsons, Coronato chose to finish his BFA and used his remaining schooling to produce material for the upcoming show: “I turned every single assignment into a western subject. If the assignment was to paint an advertisement for an automobile, I would ask, ‘Does it matter how old the car is?,’ and I would paint a covered wagon.”
Two years and many “westernized” assignments passed before Coronato hung his work on the walls at the museum and held his breath on opening night. Among the patrons visiting the High Plains on that fateful evening was Carson Thomas, a Wyoming resident and saddle maker by trade, as well as the evening’s guest speaker. Thomas enjoyed Coronato’s work, but wasted no time in pointing out that a style of saddle depicted in a painting set in the 1880’s didn’t exist until the 1930’s. Embarrassed by his rookie mistake, Coronato admits today to “having hot flashes.”
Instead of gloating, Thomas made Coronato an offer hard to refuse. Thomas had space above his saddle shop and he knew a few ranches where Coronato could get enough work and experience to back up his talent. All Coronato had to do was pack up and move to Wyoming.
After the show, the young artist went back to New Jersey. A few restless months later, he called Thomas and asked if the offer still stood. It did, but only if Coronato was serious. He was. Coronato left New Jersey with $500 and no furniture, unsure of what the future held, but brimming with excitement.
Thomas’s saddle shop (depicted above by Coronato) was located in the bustling downtown of Hulett, Wyoming, population 408. Coronato remembers those early days in Hulett, “When I first got here it was like the wild west, a different sort of law. Not another town for 50 miles.” Located just north of Devils Tower, Coronato’s says, “Hulett is a place untouched by time where there are ranches that gather 2,000 to 3,000 head of cattle on horseback, across hundreds of miles of fenceless landscape.” In the shadow of the Devils Tower, Coronato had found the west of his childhood dreams and immersed himself in capturing the local color on canvas.
With a job secured at the I.P.Y. Ranch near Devils Tower, the young man settled in as best he could. Coronato says of the long days, “I started working on the ranch by day and painting above the saddle shop at night. Many nights I was painting until 2 and 3 am and getting up by 4 to trail cows.” But he found a friend in the ranch foreman, George White, who “took me under his wing and made sure I didn't get killed.” Just a kid from New Jersey, Coronato didn’t even know how to saddle a horse when he moved to Hulett, but from White he learned the life of a cowboy and spent his days on horseback, fixing fence, and tending to livestock. At night he put the day’s events to canvas, cataloging the “ways of a fading lifestyle that so many people have admired.” Reflecting on these early days, he laughs, “I spent 10 years as free labor for every ranch within 100 miles. If I lived 200 years I wouldn’t be able to paint everything that I’ve seen. If I live to be 95 I’ll still be painting the same thing, just a different facet.”
Coronato says he finds similarities in his lifetime to the way things were at the beginning of the 19th century; watching the horse and rider be replaced by the four-wheeler and the chuck wagon by the catering van. He says, “I look back 15 years or so and see things that they don’t do anymore.” A fan of both Russell and Remington, he’s spent his lifetime trying to “document, and therefore preserve, the cowboy way of life. I thought, why not paint now what’s going on now, everything that’s interesting or unique? Then I could be like the artists at the turn of the century that I admired.” His work is accomplished with the utmost respect for authenticity, a lesson learned first at the High Plains Heritage Museum. In fact, Coronato is emphatic about the realism of his art: “The subject matters were never planned, everything is either something I saw or that I was a part of. In the long run it’ll pay off because it’s more authentic than the stuff that makes a pretty a picture.”
The first to admit that he’s a “painfully slow painter,” Coronato turned to etchings (shown above) early in his career as a quicker, yet still original, way to capture a moment. The first etching, “I did in my sink in my apartment in Santa Barbara.” He took it to the local art gallery and “compared it to one from the turn of the century by Edward Borein. The gallery owner, she said, ‘Oh where did you find a Borein?’ And I said it wasn’t, that I’d just made it in my sink.” Another fateful conversation led to the gallery owner introducing Coronato to a master printmaker at the local college. She in turn allowed him to sneak into her classes in exchange for his services as a lab tech on the weekends.
These days Coronato has two presses, one in Hulett and the other in Santa Barbara, where he escapes with his family from the lengthy Wyoming winters. Furthering the evolution of his art, Coronato has taken to “doing a cross between the two, taking my etchings and turning them into silk screens and then painting on top of them. The only other artist I can think if that did anything similar was Andy Warhol, as in with Marilyn Monroe. Except I don’t use hot pink.”
Today, Bob Coronato still portrays cowboys, but has begun to include depictions of Native Americans in his work. He and his family are regulars at Crow Fair and Indian family reunions, places where he’s found ample source material: “I went up for the Indian Relay Races, behind the stalls they were painting the horses and smudging them, it was subject matter that I would never be able to dream up.” Lately, Coronato has undertaken the task of painstakingly preserving the leaders of the American Indian Movement. Of his portrait of Russell Means (shown, upper left), Coronato says, "I believe this is a very important painting. Means himself is controversial, but I believe the painting is at a level far beyond the individual, it represents Indian pride, Indian rights, as well as 20th Century American history.”
Since the Paleolithic-era cave dwellers in southwestern France, art has served as a record of history. Coronato feels he’s somewhat of a historian, set forth to capture the way of the west before it disappears forever. As long as the cowboys still ride the range, Bob Coronato will be around to paint them, likely still holed up in the downtown Hulett saddle shop he purchased from Thomas. It’s now been converted into a studio and gallery, where walking through the front door takes visitors back to a bygone era. In Coronato’s words, “I no longer have to wish to be a part of the old days, but have become part of the West I was searching for.” -BM
Pictured at right on the job, Bob Coronato's artwork is available in downtown Bozeman at Tierney Fine Art.