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Golf & Western

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ONE DAY IN 1993, RUSSELL HOUSTON, who had till then been content to paint sunset-filled western scenes, took his wife’s exotic suggestion (prompted by old photos in a book) and put a putter in the hands of one of his cowpokes. Suddenly a genre was born. What Dali was to surrealism and Warhol to pop art, Russell Houston is to cowboy golf art.

A modest man, Houston, 43, is ambivalent about his place in art history. Mixing bogeys with dogies “is like putting a mustache on the Mona Lisa,” he laments. “Sometimes I think I’m the cornball of the art world.” But he no longer works in obscurity. Since that first canvas (a cowboy—with his partner looking on in alarm—oblivious to the bull pawing the ground behind him), Houston has sold more than 11,000 prints at $45 each. And his devoted fans, including singers Glenn Frey and Charlie Daniels, have come from as far as Alaska to visit the Eagar, Ariz., home he shares with wife Kristi, 39, and their three children.

Houston’s paintings—seven, so far—trade heavily in sight gags. “Water Hazard,” for example, shows a cowboy preparing his shot as a flash flood comes boiling down an arroyo behind him. “Chip Shot” has a golf ball teed up on a cow pie. Assisting in the enterprise, in addition to Kristi, who handles the business end, are outfitter Wayne Ramey, 42, and mule skinner Charley Coppinger, 69, whom Houston photographs in poses he later paints. “I like these guys,” he says, “because they don’t know a thing about golf.”

Houston does—he shoots in the 90s—but he is considering, once he has enough paintings for a calendar, opening yet another vista in western art. After all, Picasso had his Blue Period; Houston’s next may be cowboys-on-ostriches—no putters required.