A. Kelly Pruitt Paints What He Knows Best ? the Cowboy Way of Life
By Tom Netherland | Special to the Bristol Herald Courier | January 25, 2008**This story appeared in the Bristol Herald Courier on Jan. 24, 2008.**
You know no one like A. Kelly Pruitt.
Chances are you have never even met anyone similar to Pruitt.
And odds are you never will.
That's A-OK with and makes perfect sense to Pruitt.
"Everyone is so uniquely put together," Pruitt said. "It's a wonderful miracle."
Pruitt achieved international fame decades ago as a painter and bronze sculptor depicting the cowboy lifestyle and the American West.
See and perhaps even buy some of his paintings at the King Community Center at Southwest Virginia Community College in Richlands through Feb. 21. Pruitt will not attend.
However, his friend and agent Pawnee Jewell will. For those interested in purchasing an original Pruitt painting she said they cost from about $350 to about $55,000. She arranged the show and will be on hand tonight and tomorrow to answer questions about the endlessly fascinating Pruitt.
"Kelly is absolutely the most extraordinary human being I have ever known," said Jewell, who lives in Southwest Virginia. "He's totally free."
Pruitt is an artist for whom artifice holds absolutely no appeal. He could live in an expensive home and drive pricey cars. Instead, Pruitt lives a life that many would equate to that of an eccentric. His original paintings can sell for $50,000 and more. And yet, he owns neither land nor house.
His bronze sculptures are collected all over the world. And yet he only recently owned his first telephone, a cell phone that he owns reluctantly.
"I want to live this way," Pruitt said in a rare interview by phone from his Gypsy wagon ? yes, Gypsy wagon ? in Presidio,Texas. "I don't want to be rich. I don't want a big fancy home."
Pruitt professes to having never owned a house.
"I've never owned a piece of property or a house," he said. "I've lived most of my life in a teepee. I live in a Gypsy wagon. I've got my bed, and I've got a wood stove. I cook outside."
Yes, he's serious. He really lives that way, a lifestyle Jewell knows well from having lived eight years with Pruitt.
"We had a sleeping wagon and a kitchen wagon," Jewell said. "We had several pick-up trucks in various states of disrepair."
In lieu of riches and that which fortune brings, Pruitt opts instead for relative simplicity. He owns two horses named Blue and Samson, two dogs named Wizard and Gracie, and a pet wolf ? yes, a wolf ? named Wolf.
"I've spent my life being a part of nature as opposed to being isolated from it," Pruitt said. "Everything I have comes to me from the Great Spirit."
Part of Pruitt's preference for lack of ownership comes from that which he said can come with ownership of things.
"Not that long ago, I owned a beautiful .30-.30 rifle. I didn't want anybody to get that sentimental gun," he said, adding that it was then stolen from him. "Now that it's gone I don't have to worry about anybody stealing it. It freed me up."
He does own a car, which expedites his occasional drive into town for breakfast.
"I've got a '77 Lincoln, which is a beautiful old thing," Pruitt said. "I traded a painting for it."
Pruitt is apt to do that, trade paintings worth thousands of dollars for things oftentimes worth hundreds. Take the time his Lincoln needed a battery and alternator. A mechanic came from town, fixed the car and said he had heard that Pruitt was a painter. He asked to see some of his work.
"He said, 'Well, I'll trade you for one of those paintings and you won't have to pay the bill,' " Pruitt said. "He got a $10,000 painting for a $100 bill."
Pruitt's paintings have been shown in prestigious art galleries in Rome, Paris and London. And yet he lives in the wide expanse and sparsely populated Chihuahua Desert in Texas.
"I am just stamped this way," Pruitt said. "Sometimes, I suffer because I'll get too cold and maybe a little wet. But I just love to be out under the skies. It's the wonder of being alive."
Pruitt paints what he perhaps knows best ? the cowboy way of life. Cowboys
and particularly horses dominate his evocative paintings. A certain level of longing and waywardness, but also acceptance and love of life exudes from his works.
His are not Wild West shoot 'em up paintings.
"My paintings are absolutely original," Pruitt said. "They are a power source. A painting has power, and it can influence a person's whole life. When I paint, beautiful things come to me. It comes from the Great Spirit."
Meanwhile, fans of Pruitt's came from multitudes of walks of life. Some were famous, some not.
"Greer Garson was a collector of my work," Pruitt said. "She was always in disguise in dark glasses and all. I've been very fortunate and met a lot of people."
Garson was an Academy Award-winning actress who starred in films like "Pride and Prejudice." Jewell elaborated on Garson's love of Pruitt's work.
"Greer Garson had a huge collection of his paintings," she said. "She used to come to his studio and hang out with him when he worked."
Pruitt also achieved vast recognition for his bronze sculptures, primarily of cowboys and bucking broncs and such.
"They're all over the world," Pruitt said. "I haven't done any in about 30 years. One of the ladies I was married to, I gave her all the molds. I had 109 pieces that toured the U.S. around the time I was in Rome. One of the largest bronze shows that toured the U.S. was mine."
As for inspiration, one might think that Pruitt paints under the big skies and within the nature he loves so dearly. But no, instead he's much more apt to be found painting where people congregate, such as a bank lobby.
No kidding. And the way he tells it, he shares in the act of painting. Country music legend Hank Williams, regarded as country's Shakespeare, often said that songs came to him as if they had fallen from the sky. That sums up Pruitt's inspiration as well.
"You see, because of the way they come ... I just sit down and start painting," Pruitt said. "I'm unique. I don't paint from my memory, even though I'm a first-rate cowboy. I'm creating it. Me and the Great Spirit are co-creators."
Fame found Pruitt at some point during the 1950s and '60s. However, as with many renowned painters, fame is relative.
"He's not household famous," Jewell said. "But a lot of people know him and his work."
For example, "Gunsmoke" stars James Arness (Matt Dilon) and Ken Curtis (Festus) bought his paintings and sculptures.
"He was a friend of Ken Curtis and stayed with him when he went to California," Jewell said. "When I look at Festus on 'Gunsmoke,' he looks totally patterned after Kelly."
How's this for enigmatic. Though Pruitt befriended such western stars as Arness and Curtis and lived ensconced in the cowboy way of life, Pruitt enjoyed quite a following overseas.
"I had an apartment in Rome," Pruitt said. "Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were neighbors, and they were wonderful people."
Pruitt has crossed the paths of many a famous person. He's trod to incredible parts of the world. So goes the power of Pruitt's paintings and the man himself.
"I went to Russia," he said. "I met the Queen of England when I was in London."
Bear in mind that Pruitt said as much matter-of-factly completely sans of braggadocio. Jewell said that as best she can tell his meeting with the queen happened during the 1970s when he was hosting an art show at London's Kings Row Gallery.
"He had done a napkin drawing for the Queen of England and gave it to her," Jewell said. "She said, 'Oh, I will put that in my flat.' She went in and privately viewed his collection."
Pruitt mostly skirts talk of his fame. Instead, he prefers elaborating upon the positive among folks.
"I've had shows all over the world, and there's no such thing as a stranger with a sincere smile," he said. "The greatest painting I will ever paint is in your heart."
EDUCATED UNEDUCATED MAN
Formal education missed Pruitt ? for which he is eternally grateful.
"I have dyslexia, and teachers had no way of dealing with that," he said. "I never learned how to read until World War II. I taught myself how to read overseas."
His views on America's education system, while not unique, certainly stray far from conventional wisdom. For one, he firmly asserts that competition, especially among children, harms as opposed to helping children. He also stresses that while winners are congratulated, then nothing of substance is left to those who do not win.
"I never had formal education or in other words I wasn't put into competition and then judged and crippled," said Pruitt ? the father of two Ph.D. sons. "I was out herding goats and sheep and learning from the hard knocks of life. I've never stopped learning."
Despite his lack of formal education, Pruitt has published works of poetry and a batch of books, too. He has also lectured, ironically, on college campuses, including the University of Chicago.
"I had to smile," he said. "Here was this guy who had no education and could barely read."
Meanwhile, Pruitt makes his own way through life. He's lived what seems like three lifetimes within but one.
"My next birthday I'll be 90, on Feb. 9," Pruitt said. "I'm not stooped over or use a walker. I can put in 12 to 14 hours a day building fences. I'm in excellent health."
Indeed, Jewell said she doubts that her longtime friend has ever even visited a doctor. However, she said that he does stretch his age a bit.
"Oh no, he's not 90. He's going to be 84," Jewell said. "He loves to be old."
Pruitt also loves to look inward per the warrior's way, which he said guides his life. There simply isn't enough room to fully examine the warrior's way, but Pruitt said it isn't a religion.
"It's a way of putting your life into a wholesome and sustainable way," Pruitt said. "It's a battle with the mechanical ways that have been imposed on us."
And yet ask him to describe himself and his total lack of artifice emerges.
"I have no idea who I am," he said. "I accept who I am. What I am I am. Like Popeye says, 'I yam what I yam and that's what I yam.' "
That's A. Kelly Pruitt ? funny and yet something of a riddle, pointblank and yet also mysterious.
"He has a pencil drawing of a cowboy riding through this wide open range. In the clouds is a big cowboy looking down on this solitary figure," Jewell said. "That's how I see Kelly."
Pruitt embraces his life as uniquely his own. Instead of concerning himself with could haves and should haves he emphasizes the positive and looks forward to that which lies ahead.
"Our spirit is eternal. When this old body goes back to the dirt then my spirit will go on," Pruitt said. "I've been greatly blessed. I've lived an outstanding life and have no complaints. I have absolutely no regrets in my life."
IF YOU GO
What: "From the Heart and Hand of A. Kelly Pruitt" art exhibit
When: Now through Feb. 21 during regular school hours
Where: King Community Center at Southwest Community College, Richlands
Info: (276) 880-1404 or (276) 964-7228
TOM NETHERLAND is a freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.