Bonita resident Mehl Lawson has long been fascinated by horses and the culture of the American West.
While still in high school, he apprenticed with a highly regarded horse trainer. Absorbing all that he could, Lawson later turned his interest into a career.
In the 1960s and 1970s, he crisscrossed the country training and showing horses in some of the most prestigious events of the time. He was very much in demand by Southern California horse owners and breeders.
When he wasn’t riding and training horses Lawson was drawing them. His natural artistic gift had become apparent in childhood, but initially his art was just a hobby.
By the mid-70s he took his love for horses in another direction. He started developing the skills that would soon find him fame as one of America’s leading sculptors in the field of Western art.
“I finished my first sculpture in 1977 and kept at it,” Lawson said recently from his Bonita studio. “It went over so well that I had my entire edition of 25 sold within a year.
“I kept going to galleries and shows and kept learning. I quickly realized that if I was going to make a living as an artist that sculpting was what I needed to do.”
For nearly 40 years Lawson has been winning awards and selling his bronze sculptures in prestigious galleries and at shows that only exhibit the best of the best. One of his bronzes was presented by former President George Bush and his wife Laura to Queen Elizabeth II.
“I think one of my biggest honors was to be part of a two-man retrospective at the Gilcrease Museum of Western Art in Tulsa,” Lawson said. “That would be the equivalent of being a musician and performing at Carnegie Hall.”
He also is the only person to be inducted into both the Cowboy Artists of America Association and the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association. In 2008, Lawson was honored as Artist of the Year for his creativity in yet another field, that of rawhide braiding.
In the last several years Lawson has changed horses once again. Now he is following a new trail. This time he is developing his skills as a painter.
“I’ve been taking workshops and painting with my artist friends focusing on Western landscapes,” Lawson said. “The horses in my paintings come naturally, the backgrounds are a little more difficult. With sculpture, you have little or no color. I love color and that is why oil painting is so appealing to me. Sculpture is by nature three-dimensional. With painting you try to create the illusion of three dimensions. All of the elements that go into a painting are so much fun. It is great when you can pull it off.”
For the last four years Lawson has spent many hours honing his craft as a painter. Based on what is now hanging on his walls it won’t be long before he begins displaying his oil paintings publicly.
One such opportunity will come in August when he curates his second show featuring Western art at the Bonita Museum and Cultural Center. The show runs for five weeks and opens on Aug. 8.
“This is going to be a fabulous show,” Lawson predicted. “It will be twice as good as the last one. It will include 40 to 50 pieces of Western and Native American art with a good variety of paintings, and some watercolors, pencil drawings and sculpture. This time we will have some really major works.”
Some of the top names in the field will be included. Among them are Tom Ryan, Bill Owen, John Coleman, Robert Lougheed and Kevin Riley. Lawson will likely include several of his own works and might unveil one of his new paintings for the first time.
The museum is looking for additional docents to help out with this show or to volunteer a few hours per week. For more information, contact Julie Gay at (619) 267-5141.