Diabetes and depression nearly robbed Bob Moline of his art and saddlemaking careers. But the artist is back in the studio with a new vision and respect for the way of life he portrays.
TWO YEARS AGO, Bob Moline was about to let go of the frayed rope from which he’d been dangling. Ten years earlier, he’d been diagnosed with diabetes, the disease that took his mother’s life and his brother and sister’s sight.
Moline was taking medicine to control the disease, but something still wasn’t right. He had no strength in the morning and felt lethargic all day. He had frequent headaches, heat sensitivity and couldn’t concentrate. Some people called him lazy, others called him crazy. He felt angry and alone, and even had thoughts of suicide.
“The only way I can describe how I felt is that something was trying to crawl out of me,” Moline explains. “I was emotional, and I just wanted to be alone in my studio. My friends and family thought I was angry with them, but I was angry with myself. My wife, Brenda, couldn’t handle it anymore, so we got a divorce.”
One day, Moline was in his studio working on a painting for the Cheyenne Frontier Days Western Art Show and Sale, when he completely lost his sight. He feared that his diabetes had gained the upper hand and would end his painting career. An operation restored his sight within a few days, however, and the doctor treating him diagnosed the blindness as due to a chemical imbalance triggered by the diabetes medication. Once the doctor regulated Moline’s medication and taught him to control his condition with dietary adjustments, it wasn’t long before Moline felt normal again, inspired and excited to be alive.
Seeing his change in personality and determination to overcome his condition, Brenda and Moline’s closest friends rallied by his side, encouraging him to paint again. The result has been a renaissance for the artist and saddlemaker, who splits his time between his saddle-tree shop in Sulphur, Oklahoma, and art studio in Fort Worth, Texas. Diabetes is still very much a reality in Moline’s daily life. He tests his blood-sugar levels five to six times a day, analyzing what he’s eaten and how it affects his test and how he feels. He also studies food labels and carefully watches what he eats. However, he refuses to let the disease dominate him, admitting to “cheating” on his diet once a week. He also is rebuilding his livelihood on his terms, focusing on his three areas of expertise: saddlemaking, painting and manufacturing saddle trees.
Craftsman by Choice
When Moline looks upon the Western landscape, he sees color and texture, as if in a painting. He can sense scenes of yesteryear, whether it’s the drumming that accompanies an American Indian dance, the taste of dust during a cattle drive, or the smell of smoke from a hot branding iron meeting cowhide. The artist comes by his visions naturally. Of Comanche and Pawnee ancestry, Moline lived part of his childhood with his parents and 10 siblings in Texas and Louisiana, and part with his grandparents in Oklahoma. His father was a horse trader, and the auction barns, ranches and corrals to which father and son traveled served as valuable classrooms when Moline was a teenager. “Dad bought green colts for $20, and we’d break them and sell them for $100,” Moline recalls. “I also spent time as a jockey, but I was happiest when I was doing something cowboy.” When he was old enough to be on his own, Moline hired on West Texas ranches and then worked at a lumberyard in Amarillo. All the while, he wanted to learn to make saddles. In 1959, he drove from Amarillo to Fort Worth in hope of getting a job
as a saddlemaker. While in the Fort Worth Stockyards, he stopped to make a call. Across the street he saw the iconic horse atop Ryon’s Western Store and decided to ask owner Windy Ryon for a job.
“Have you ever built a saddle?” Ryon asked.
“No, sir, but I’m willing to learn,” Moline replied. “Can you stamp?” “Yes, sir.”
Ryon hired Moline on a trial basis, gave him a $75 advance and two days to gather his family and move to Fort Worth.
Moline didn’t know much about working in a saddle shop, but was so thrilled to be there that he’d do about any job.
“I started out sweeping the shop floor,” he recalls. “After about three months, Windy came up to me and said, ‘Cowboy, I have a saddle for you to make.’ It was a roughout, which was too plain for me, so I dyed the edges to dress it up.”
Moline was eventually promoted to foreman of Ryon’s saddle shop. He stayed there for 14 years, making a variety of saddles including the first Buster Welch-endorsed cutting saddle. It was a full floral-tooled saddle with buck stitching and silver rope edging on the cantle, pommel and around the skirt.
Art and Craft Collide
During his time at Ryon’s, art was becoming an important part of Moline’s life. The saddlemaker created his own tooling patterns, drawing them right on the leather. Recognizing his employee’s talent, Ryon referred customers wanting portraits of their horses or dogs drawn to Moline, and also commissioned him to draw the cover for the Ryon’s catalog. Before long, word spread of Moline’s ability to draw anatomically correct horses and the Paint Horse Journal hired him to do a penand-ink drawing for their cover.
“I’d never received money for my drawings, so when they offered me $75, I thought that was a pretty good wage,” Moline says. “Then they asked me to do five more. I felt like I was getting paid for playing.”
Oils and canvas were beyond Moline’s budget, so he bought a set of child’s watercolors for 35 cents and painted on paper. Moline painted religiously and before long was making more money painting than building saddles. But he still considered himself foremost a saddlemaker; he couldn’t imagine painting for a living.
His first art show was at a bank in Austin, Texas, in 1973. He traveled there with two other artists. They spent three days at the show, but didn’t sell one piece. As they were packing up, a stranger walked up to Moline and purchased several paintings for $700 apiece. Then another person traded him a rifle for the rest of his paintings. This was the defining moment when Moline finally admitted he was an artist. He hesitantly left the security of the saddle shop and began a new chapter in life as an artist.
At an art show taking place in 1975, Moline was asked if he’d be interested in submitting artwork for a new book coming out, titled XIT, The American Cowboy. He took the offer and created 15 paintings and nine drawings for the book. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, during the Western art heyday, Moline’s career flourished. Most artists chose either cowboy or American Indian subjects, but Moline’s ties to both cultures allowed him to paint both with amazing realism.
“I appreciate the realism Bob puts in his paintings,” says Texas horseman and Moline collector Kelly Riley. “Spending time on big ranches has given him the ability to capture the look of a horse. He has the perspective of someone who rides and cowboys.”
He was constantly on the road, traveling to art shows from New York City to Los Angeles. He also did work for David Stoecklein’s book The
Texas Cowboys, and his good friend Don Edwards’ book Saddle Songs: A Cowboy Songbag.
“I wasn’t born a natural artist,” Moline says. “I was given the talent to be an artist, but I had to work hard to become one. If someone had told me how long it takes to become an established artist, I probably wouldn’t have done it.”
A perfectionist, Moline is hard to satisfy and admits to ripping up more paintings than he keeps. Whereas many Western artists are content to reach a certain level and stay there, Moline is constantly experimenting with his technique and subject matter.
For years, an old, awkwardly sized frame took up space in his house and was always in the way. In 1994, Moline finally decided he either needed to throw it away or do a painting to fit it. He chose the latter option, creating a chuckwagon scene in a loose, impressionistic style uncharacteristic of painting. Moline struggled with the piece and on several occasions thought about throwing it away. But Brenda encouraged him to finish it. The painting earned Moline the Governor’s Purchase Award at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Art Show and Sale in 1994, and remains in the Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum’s permanent collection.
A New Dimension
Just as Moline’s art continues to change, he also continues to evolve as a craftsman.
During the rough spells of his life, Moline made some unwise business decisions. With his new vision and motivation, he started making Oxbow saddle trees in 2003. It was his form of quality control.
Moline has deep respect for cowboys who are horseback everyday, because he’s been in their boots. Today, rather than riding the range, he spends most of his time traveling between a metal garage he converted into a tree shop in Sulphur, and his studio in Fort Worth. He strives to make a difference in the lives of horses, cowboys and saddlemakers.
“The tree is the foundation of a saddle, and if you get a bad tree, you’ll have a sorry saddle no matter how good the craftsmanship on the saddle,” he says. “When making trees, I consider the horse’s comfort first, because he’s packing the cowboy, and then the cowboy, who rides the saddle all day.”
Moline makes fiberglass-covered trees. He says the fiberglass is more forgiving in different climates, protects and reinforces the tree, and can be repaired. He continues to craft cowboy Wade, Will James and ranch cutter saddles, and has started a new line of custom saddles called “The Feather.” Moline has designed the new saddles to weigh less than 30 pounds, without sacrificing quality and durability. One of his most popular cowboy models has a Will James tree with a post horn.
Each saddle he makes, as well as each piece of artwork he creates, is branded with his hallmark feather and stylized signature.
Moline considers cowboys his primary critics, whether they’re viewing his artwork or riding his saddles. Horsemen have ridden Moline’s saddles for more than four decades, and continue to order more.
“I’ve had one of his saddles for 15 years,” Riley says. “And I’ve had many compliments on it. One time Tyler Magnus commented how how well it fit a horse.
“Bob is a no frills guy,” Riley continues. “But he has an eye for detail and quality and can make saddles that are works of art in themselves.”
Galleries are recognizing the renaissance in Moline’s work and asking him to paint more pieces.
Moline has made a comeback, but this time he’s making sure he’s listening to himself and making sure he has the final word.
Jennifer Denison is a Western Horseman senior editor. For more information on Moline’s art and saddles, phone (817) 975-2833. Send comments on this story to email@example.com.