National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum showcases the early comics of Tom Ryan

click to enlarge Tom Ryan derived inspiration from the things around him, including ship during his time in the U.S. Coast Guard. | Image Tom Ryan / Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum / provided
Tom Ryan derived inspiration from the things around him, including ship during his time in the U.S. Coast Guard. | Image Tom Ryan / Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum / provided

All too often, it can seem, an artist’s work overpowers individual personality. Who is the person behind the canvas? What is their artistic evolution? Cartoons & Comics: The Early Art of Tom Ryan answers such questions and offers a window into the mind of its titular artist before he achieved widespread acclaim.

Running through April 1, 2018, Dan the Cop (Tom Ryan / Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum / provided) at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, 1700 NE 63rd, Cartoons & Comics surveys 24 pieces of Ryan’s earliest known artwork. Composed during Ryan’s teenage years, 1936-45, the works reflect their creator’s (sometimes humorous) observations about the worlds in which he found himself: a Jesuit school in Wisconsin and serving in the U.S. Coast Guard.

The exhibition originated after Kimberly Roblin, director of the Dickinson Research Center and curator of archives, came across Ryan’s early work in the research center. Roblin said Ryan held a long association with the museum as a member of the Cowboy Artists of America, which regularly exhibits at the museum, and Ryan donated some of his pieces in 2002.

“Most of it relates to his later work,” Roblin said of the donated pieces. “But I was surprised to find … one composition book and a handful of sketches. … I thought it would be interesting to the public — not only those that know him, but even those who don’t — to see a different side of Western artists.”

Among Ryan’s early works is Dan the Cop, a comic strip he created in junior high, Roblin said. Over four installments, Ryan told the story of the eponymous police officer, whom Roblin described as “well-intentioned but goofy.”

While Ryan was only 14 when he created Dan the Cop, Roblin said his compositional skill and attention to detail is already apparent in such early works. Ryan also looked more immediately at his surroundings for inspiration.

“He liked to draw his teachers in not the most flattering styles,” Roblin said. “And even priests were not immune from his pencil.”

To Roblin, Ryan’s early works are inherently relatable. His composition book cover features a plane engine on fire with the pilot trying to bail out, Roblin said.

“I think most of us grow up doodling and sketching, drawing on our notebook covers, but most of us don’t become professional artists,” Roblin said. “It’s something that everyone can relate to, and that’s not always the case when we see art. These were pieces that he did for himself and for his friends. They’re really a glimpse into his personality, and they aren’t the polished pieces of a career artist. There’s a spontaneity about them.”

In addition to his cartoons and caricatures, Ryan also illustrated for the student newspaper at his school. These pieces are more realist in nature, and they further evidence his later abilities, Roblin said.

As Ryan left high school and began his service in the Coast Guard, Roblin said he continued to create comics and caricatures that remind her of Popeye in their black-and-white contrasts. As he honed his craft, Ryan also began to do line studies and portraits, Roblin said.

Attendees can view the beginning of Ryan’s stylistic evolution in Cartoons & Comics, and Roblin said the museum also has some of his later pieces.

click to enlarge Dan the Cop | Image Tom Ryan / Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum / provided
Dan the Cop | Image Tom Ryan / Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum / provided

Cowboy made

While Ryan’s later works, such as “Sharing an Apple,” “Split Decision” and “Six Pack Saturday Night” showcase cowboy life, he was not born in the West. Rather, like so many of the people he painted, Ryan made his way there.

Inspired by everyone from Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn to Andrew Newell Wyeth, Ryan himself altered the landscape of Western art and influenced many others working in his field.

“By the time he passed away in 2011, he was one of the most well-known and well-respected Western artists,” Roblin said.

Born in Illinois in 1922, Ryan worked as an illustrator for calendars and book covers. After a 1963 assignment sent him to Texas, he fell in love with the landscape and the people. In 1967, he joined Cowboy Artists of America and found the subject matter that would continue to preoccupy him.

Ryan frequently depicted iconic elements of cowboy life, such as the 6666 Ranch, but he steered away from sentimentality in his artistic representations.

“[He] spent the rest of his career really dedicated to showing not the romanticized version of the West, but the working cowboys, the working ranch hands,” Roblin said. “I think he was really drawn to the values and work ethic they showed.”

Deriving inspiration from illustrations he saw in books as a youth, Ryan’s art retained a sense of his keen observation and narrative quality. Even though he moved on from his illustration career, Roblin said, he continued to tell stories through his work.

“He was always observing the world around him … and processing what he saw with either pen and paper or a paintbrush. That core motivation he had even as a young boy — observing the world around him and drawing it — continued throughout his life,” Roblin said.

In Cartoons & Comics, attendees have the opportunity to see the person behind the art, the young adolescent who would leave a major impact on Western art when he was still satirizing authority figures and drawing caricatures of his friends.

“This is a chance for the public to meet not Tom Ryan the renowned Western artist, but Tom Ryan the teenager,” Roblin said. Call 405-478-2250 or visit

Print headline: Destined doodles; National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum showcases the early comics, caricatures and doodles of Tom Ryan

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