There’s a matted and framed print that hangs in a funny corner of the office, right near the ladies room. It’s a beautiful vertically sized, detailed pencil drawing of a cattle drive. Now, it’s not unusual to find artwork near or in public restrooms, but you don’t usually see pieces that are as engaging and extraordinary as this particular piece happens to be. I remember when it came to live in that little corner; I chuckled to myself thinking such a remarkable piece should be anywhere but near the bathroom. Pieces like this are usually found in grand homes or museums. This print, titled “Headin’ for Shelter,” was one of the first on my list of pieces I wanted to research more when I decided to write these blog posts.
Its fantastic! The vertical size is unusual, the perspective is unique, the detail is remarkable, and it’s all done in pencil. Even though I walk by it many times in a day, I always see something new in it I didn’t see before. It assuredly captures a moment in time that few people would have the opportunity to experience in person.
Upon closer inspection I noticed twice the artist, Virgil C. Stephens, has signed and numbered it (166/300). It also has a hand written note on the opposite corner which says, “To Bill + Elaine Rooks,” with a hand drawn emblem of a brand. The brand is then identified on a silver plaque at the base of the framing. Three rows of engraving state:
Trail Drive 1991Rafter 26 RanchBuena Vista, Colo.
So how did something so personal looking end up on the walls of the Cowboy Publishing Group? I wondered if any of our more tenured staffers remembered the piece. I discussed it with Book Publishing Director Fran Smith, who kindly assisted my research by contacting former Western Horseman publisher Randy Witte. We learned that in the fall of 1991, a few Western Horseman staffers accompanied Witte, on a cattle drive for the Rafter 26 Ranch. The Rooks family had annually invited friends and family on a three-day cattle drive to move their herd from South Park, Colorado, back home to Rafter 26 (Witte wrote a lovely account of the drive and its history in the March 1992 issue of Western Horseman).
According to Witte’s memory, Stephens rode along on the cattle drive as well. According to one of Stephens’ websites, he often times took a camera along when working cattle to capture scenes to use as inspiration and reference in his artwork. The scene in “Headin’ for Shelter” is from that cattle drive in 1991. When Stephens’ gifted the piece to the Rooks, Bill Rooks decided it should hang on the wall of the Western Horseman offices since they were so kind to join the group in the first place. Funny enough, Fran remembered that one of the original wall spaces where the print was displayed was a wall space between the men and women’s restrooms.
Stephens was born and raised in Globe, Arizona. Adopted as a small child, he learned how to be a rancher from his adoptive father. He’s been a self-taught pencil artist for 20-plus years. His medium expansion to bronze sculpture began in 1992, and conte drawings and oil paintings in 2004. His genres range from Western/cowboy lifestyles to musical themes. Today Stephens lives and works as a full-time artist in the Loma Grande mountain range of New Mexico with his wife, Emily.
Stephens’ expansive body of work is remarkable and I was happy to learn he was indeed a very active artist and musician. He maintains several websites and social media sites to keep friends, family and fans up to date on his activities. I recommend visiting all of them to learn more about Stephens and see much more of his work.
The Rafter 26 Ranch is a working cattle ranch located at the base of Mount Princeton in Buena Vista, Colorado. Bill and Elaine Rooks, multi-generational family ranchers since 1878, purchased the Rafter 26 Ranch on Friday, July 13, 1962. Their son, Lee Rooks, is the current steward. In 2010, 472 acres of the ranch was placed under protection of a conservation easement. This easement, granted in partnership with The Trust for Public Land (TPL) and the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust (CCALT), will keep the Rafter 26 Ranch safe from commercial and residential development for the foreseeable future.