ASPEN - Aspen no longer has any real cowboys, but at least Austin Kuck hangs around from time to time.
Kuck, 47, is a prolific artist who illustrates his Western themes with a black Bic ballpoint pen. He lived in Aspen, often couch-surfing in various places, for around 15 years - even calling a tepee on Smuggler Mountain home at one point. Today he lives near Silt, on a farm near the Colorado River, but sometimes you can catch him at Little Annie's restaurant and some of his other favorite downtown locales, usually on weekends.
His works will be on display at the Gonzo Gallery, at 521 E. Hyman Ave., for an indefinite period. It's mostly the stuff of the Old West - cowboys and Indians and wildlife, all done in his distinctive style - but there are a couple of portraits of former Sheriff Bob Braudis and some items that fall outside of the genre.
Kuck, a native of the Colorado Springs area, said he started drawing when he was 3 years old. "Basically an orphan," as he put it, he had a rough-and-tumble childhood and was in and out of foster homes all the way through his teenage years. He was always in trouble for fighting and other petty offenses. But there were times when he lived with good people on their ranches in the San Luis Valley.
"I started drawing when I was 3. I started out doing birds and cars. I grew up drawing on those old Big Chief writing tablets with yellow paper and the big lines on it. I soon got tired of pencils. I started using Bic pens when I was 8 years old because I didn't like erasing - erasing tore big holes in the paper. I got the nickname 'The Bic Man,' and that's what a lot of people call me," he said.
Kuck said he was influenced by some Western artists when he was younger, and he also had art teachers in schools. When he was 14, an art teacher gave him a set of oils but no canvas.
He said he took four large cardboard boxes that were used to hold cases of Charmin toilet tissue and duct-taped them together. He painted a huge scene of the ranch where he was living at the time, with cattle yards and snow and the sun going down behind the Sangre de Cristo mountains.
"I did it 10 foot by 10 foot, and it hung in the house above the fireplace," Kuck said.
Visitors would come over, and they would be amazed when his foster parent would take the painting off the wall and turn it around to reveal the Charmin logo.
"That was my first oil," he said. "I got the paints before I ever had a painting class."
Kuck, who is part Choctaw, said he always gravitated toward historical themes.
"I studied famous artists like Frederic Remington and Charlie Russell," he said. "Russell was a heck of a cowboy and a heck of a drunk. If you go up to Cody, Wyo., people call me a young Charlie Russell. That's my nickname because I'd go work on the ranches and come into town and do my artwork at Cassie's Supper Club up there."
In fact, Kuck said he spent more than seven months painting murals all around the famous Cody supper club and dance hall.
Kuck has led a diverse life, living in various states and working many types of jobs, including construction and in oil fields. But he has always made a living from art and has resided in a lot of resort towns like Aspen, where the rich come to play and buy things.
In such places, he said, it's often easier to sell his works.
"I've lived in resort towns all my life: Palm Springs, Jackson Hole, Aspen. I did a lot of artwork for museums in towns when they would have their anniversaries. I did all of this work, trampling around in different places, and didn't realize I was building this big collection of art throughout my life," he said.
Speaking of life, it hasn't always been smooth. Occasionally Kuck has found himself behind bars. A few years ago, he was arrested in Aspen after arguing with someone who owed him money. The Aspen policeman who arrested him officially charged him with possession of drug paraphernalia: Kuck was holding some cigarette papers. The case was thrown out when the judge recalled that the person with whom Kuck was arguing owed her money, too.
"Pitkin County's got the best jail," he said, echoing a sentiment shared by many who have been locked up in Aspen over the years.
Kuck remembers that Aspen artist-architect Thomas W. Benton, who designed and built the East Hyman Avenue building where the Gonzo Gallery is today, was his jailer several years ago when Kuck was charged with drunken driving. Benton, who died in 2007, was famous for his political posters from the 1960s and 1970s. They are on display at the Gonzo Gallery, on the same floor that is temporarily housing Kuck's art.
Benton offered to let Kuck keep his art in the jail cell.
"He said, 'Would you like to keep your whole portfolio in here? We'll bring it into your cell, and that way when someone needs your artwork we can take it and go deliver it to them,'" Kuck said.
Kuck said he's been steering clear of legal issues lately.
"I've been good," he said. "I'm breaking my own personal record."
Kuck welcomes emails and phone calls. His contact information is email@example.com or 970-620-3238. Aside from the pen illustrations, he also paints with oils and does mural work.