By Ryan Dorn Explorebigsky.com contributor
The first thing you notice about Gary Lynn Roberts is his slow, Texas drawl, which stands out a bit in Montana. Next, you see his devotion to God and love for his family.
“What defines me is my faith,” he says. “My family is my strength. They are the reason I paint.”
A classical oil painter, Gary Lynn’s pieces are primarily set in the 1870s and 1880s, and most depict vibrant scenes of cowboys or American Indians living life in the historic West. His style ranges between impressionism and realism, leaning more toward impressionism, he says.
Gary Lynn, 60, moved his family to Montana from his native Texas in 2008.
After a show at the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, he and his wife Nancy vacationed in the Bitterroot Valley.
“I kind of trapped my wife,” he recalls. “I fell in love with it up here but couldn’t get her to move. She came to Hamilton and said, ‘Now if I could live here, I’d move.’ So, I jumped all over it.”
Within 24 hours he’d rented a house and a studio. They had two weeks to move from Austin and enroll their daughters in school in Hamilton.
For the Roberts, paintings are a family affair. Nancy helps with historic research, and daughters Mary, 15, and Anna, 12, help frame his finished work. The older children have long been out of the house, but they too have helped in the past, Joe building frames and Jeannie working at the Legacy Gallery in Jackson, Wyoming, where their father’s work is sold.
Gary Lynn’s father Joe Rader Roberts was also an accomplished artist and commercial painter. In the days before fine art galleries were popular, he provided for his family by painting signs for businesses in their small hometown outside of Houston, Texas. Gary Lynn followed suit, and each week his mother drove him to grocery stores to paint the newest specials on their windows.
“I think I got eight dollars a sign, and I would do 20 of them,” he says, laughing. “I made a lot of money as a 14-year-old. You’d make a dollar mowing a lawn, so I made a whole lot more than my friends.”
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the elder Roberts moved his family to Austin where a thriving art scene was emerging. There, he was finally able to support himself entirely with fine art painting.
Gary Lynn also phased out of the sign business, and by age 22 he was focusing entirely on his own paintings. Despite similar paths, Joe Roberts never pressured his son to be a painter.
“He had a philosophy that I share with him to this day,” Gary Lynn said. “If someone wants to be an artist, you can’t stop him… The ones that are successful have it in their blood.”
In nearly 50 years of painting, Gary Lynn has had success in both art sales and awards.
In 2009, he won both the C.M. Russell Art Auction People’s Choice Award and the Honorary Chairman Award for his painting, After the Shower. This painting depicts three cowboys riding down a dark and muddy street with packhorses in tow, clouds breaking on a mountain above them.
More recently, Gary Lynn won the 2012 Best of Show at the John Clymer Museum Auction, for his painting Colors of Fall.
His paintings transport viewers to the place and time depicted in the work, says Colin Mathews, owner of Creighton Block Gallery in Big Sky, who represents Gary Lynn.
“[People] experience Gary Lynn’s work emotionally,” Mathews said. “It grabs a viewer and creates the illusion that the viewer is in the scene, standing just behind the point that the artist painted from.”
“I’ve been blessed with an imagination I think comes from God,” Gary Lynn says. “I don’t necessarily need to see it to paint it. Growing up, I thought I was raised in the West since [I lived in] Houston. I didn’t know any different. I had horses, and I did rodeo. That was most natural for me.”
Today, Gary Lynn prefers painting the American West of the 1870s and 1880s, because he’s drawn to the spirit of the frontier.
“It was an industrialist age… If you had the courage, you could go west and make your fortune. That spirit has always interested me.”
Many of his paintings combine “extraordinary depth of background, with a powerful sense of motion coming toward the viewer in the foreground,” Mathews says. “His mastery of the color wheel enables him to achieve subtle spatial effects through careful juxtapositions of color.”
Gary Lynn’s studio is a nondescript building on Highway 93 in Hamilton. Inside, the furniture is sparse and the decorations few. The walls are filled with history books and paintings. A work of his father’s hangs in his office. He says he wishes he had more.
Because Gary Lynn paints wet on dry, the first layer must sit for three days before more paint can be applied. Six paintings in different stages sit along a shelf. A colorful woven Indian blanket, a beat-up saddle and a holster with a gun are a few of the historical items piled into a corner for reference. Although he enjoys history and tries to be as accurate as possible, Gary Lynn won’t label himself a historical painter.
Living in Montana, he is inspired by the landscape around him, according to his family.
“Sometimes, we’ll be driving down the road, and he’ll be very quiet,” Nancy says. “Then he’ll say, ‘Believe it or not, I’m working right now.’”
“And even [sketching] at church,” his daughter Mary says.
“You didn’t need to add that,” Gary Lynn says and laughs. “We could have left that alone.”
Gary Lynn Roberts is still busy. He stays behind the easel as much as possible, working six days a week, from the time he drops Mary and Anna off at school until the family gathers for dinner. He finishes more than 30 paintings a year and receives many requests from galleries all over the West.
Despite a painting career spanning five decades, Gary Lynn has no plans to slow down. “For me it’s not work, it’s a labor of love.”