A Lifetime of Stories
He can't remember how many paintings he's done, but he thinks he's painted pictures of horses in 28 states, Canada, Mexico, and Brazil. And he for sure remembers that he has painted some horses two or even three times. "I'd paint a picture for the owner of a horse, and then when the horse sold, the new owner would want one. And if the horse sold again, sometimes the next owner would want one," Orren Mixer laughs.
Visiting with Orren in his studio is like a trip through the "Who's Who" in the Quarter Horse world. Since the late 1940s, Orren has had firsthand acquaintance with most of the greats-two-legged and four-legged-in the Quarter Horse industry. He thinks it was 1949 when he painted his first portrait of a horse, on commission.
"About 1950, I painted Tom's Lady Gray and Gray Lady, both owned by James Reese of Temple, Oklahoma. In 1951, I painted Blob Jr., the World Champion Quarter Running Horse in 1950 for Oscar Cox of Lawton, Oklahoma. Then I went down to Del Rio (Tex.) and painted Stella Moore. Not long after that, Jess Hankins wanted a painting of King. Then Bud Warren wanted Leo, and Ed Heller wanted a painting of Pondie. Those were the first good horses I did."
Orren was born in Oklahoma City in 1920 and, except for several brief stints in other parts of the country, has never strayed too far from his roots. Today he and his wife, Evelyn, whom he married in 1941, live outside of Arcadia, just northeast of Oklahoma City. Their ranch home/studio sits atop a hill overlooking pastures where Orren's broodmares graze.
When Orren was 9 years old, his mother died. Although he spent time living with one uncle who raised Hereford cattle, and another uncle who raised dairy cattle, he says "I've practically been on my own ever since my mother died." However, he did favor living with the uncle who had the Herefords. "With those dairy cattle, we couldn't ride the cows or rope the calves, so I stayed where the action was."
In fact, Orren has always thrived on action. He's been riding since he was a little kid, and he loved to run horses wide open. "I had a few runaways, but never one that I tried to stop. Man, I encouraged 'em to run!" he exclaims. "We had to take care of some cattle about a quarter-mile from the house. I still remember, to this day, that I never walked home from that pasture. After I shut the gate, I got on my horse, and just turned him loose.
He started rodeoing as a kid, riding broncs and bulls, and roping calves. And still later, armed with his Speed Graphic, he shot rodeo action. But we're getting ahead of the story.
When Orren was attending Central High School in Oklahoma City, he had a terrific art teacher named Grace Chadwick. "She was the type of teacher who was willing to help you all she could-if you were willing to help yourself. If you tried, she would do anything in the world for you.
"I'd always been drawing horses and other stuff, and during my senior year she took some of my work and sent it to the Kansas City Art Institute. After I graduated, I got a job that summer at one of the five-and-ten-cent stores doing their window displays, lettering, and so forth. I enjoyed it. I was getting $16 a week, while all the girls working as clerks were getting $1 a day.
"Then Mrs. Chadwick called me one day and told me that I had received a scholarship to the Kansas City Art Institute. I went there for 2 years and studied commercial art … this was 1938/39, and 1939/40. During the summers of '39 and '40, a buddy and I hitchhiked all over the country."
After two years at the Art Institute, Orren figured it was time to put into practice what he'd been learning. So in the fall of '40 he hitchhiked to New York City and got a job designing covers for sheet music. "They paid me $5 a week. But my room cost only $3 a week, I could buy a bowl of oatmeal for a nickel, get a good plate lunch for a quarter, a big bowl of spaghetti at night for 15 cents, and ride the subway for a nickel."
Orren also augmented his income designing mail-order advertising for another company. "Say they wanted to advertise hats. I would draw a picture of a hat, do some copy describing the hat, and include the name of the company. These ads were printed on penny post cards. For each ad I designed, I'd get a quarter. I could do up to five in one evening. Man, I was getting rich!" Orren laughs.
By springtime, though, Orren says he'd had enough of New York City and was itching to see green grass again. He headed for Fort Worth and worked for the Southwestern Engraving Company for a short time. When World War II broke out, he went to southern California and started working in an aircraft manufacturing plant in San Diego.
While he was in San Diego, Orren bought his first camera, a Speed Graphic. "That's when my photographic career began. I shot a lot of rodeo pictures, including a bunch of Hoot Gibson at Lane Field in San Diego."
In 1943, when a new aircraft factory opened in Fort Worth, Orren worked there a few months until he went into the Navy. However, the old expression Join the Navy and see the world did not hold true in Orren's case. He spent his naval career in downtown Chicago working as a visual aids expert. Among other things, he did photography, illustrations, wood working, and some top secret stuff that required him to have FBI clearance.
While he was in Chicago, Orren painted three pictures depicting horses. "One showed a wild horse, another a bucking horse, and I forget what the third one was. But I sold them to a store, and they sold two of them before I got out of the store. Boy, that's when you think you are a great artist," Orren grinned, "and that's when I went from commercial art work to painting horses."
Orren was discharged in 1946, and he and Evelyn moved back to Oklahoma, buying a place and building a studio right up the road from where they are now. "I began taking lots of pictures at rodeos, and I was also rodeoing myself. Rode broncs and bulls, and did a little roping. I was selling black-and-white 8 by 10s for $1 each."
Even after he began painting, Orren continued shooting and selling photos until his painting commissions reached the point where they kept him chained to his easel. But he continued to use his cameras. When he receives a commission, he studies the horse thoroughly, and then takes a complete set of photographs to study. His travels have enabled him to meet many of the leading horsemen and breeders in the Quarter Horse industry, and given him the opportunity to photograph legendary horses. Of course, some of them were not famous at the time.
When asked if any of the many horses he has painted were particular favorites, Orren replies. "Well, I'm kinda funny about that. I like lots of horses. I like different breeds of horses. I like mules. I even like wild horses. If a man has a chunky-type horse and he likes him, I think that's great. If he's got one that looks like a Greyhound and he likes him, I think that's great too.
"But the middle-of-the-road type of horse is the one I've always like. One that can go out and run a race and also compete in performance, and be good to look at. I don't like anything artificial.
"Everything's a specialty today. Back when I started painting, a Quarter Horse could do a lot. Then so much money got involved that owners and trainers got to specializing, and trying to beat you. When there is a lot of money involved, hey, some guys will do anything in the world to best you."
Over the years, Orren has observed sons and daughters, as well as grandsons and granddaughters of famous horses he has painted. Since he has also bred and raised horses himself, he has paid particular attention to how well some horses have produced, and which bloodlines they crossed well with. For example, in his opinion:
"Both King and Leo crossed good on one another. But their offspring had to have an outcross, and they worked very well on Three Bars (TB). Ol' Three Bars produced good mares and good studs. So did Jet Deck, although you don't hear much about him today. People seem to forget that he sired Easy Jet. Now, Leo, his mares were in great demand in '50s and '60s, but not too many of his sons ever accomplished what he did. Impressive, he's a great sire of stud horses.
"Easy Jet and Dash For Cash are probably two of the greatest sires that ever lived, but it's interesting to study their offspring. You see a stud by Easy Jet and he looks like a stud. And a lot of Easy Jet's mares look masculine. They look like stout, tough horses. And they can all run.
"On the other hand, Dash For Cash has a lot of studs that remind you of mares. I've taken lots of pictures of his sons, and the ones I've fooled with are gentle, good dispositioned, and look like mares or geldings. Yet they are all great race horses …they can run like the wind. Now how do you explain that?" Orren wonders out loud.
Among the many horses he has painted, and not mentioned, are Monsieur Joe for Gordon Brown, Paul A. for Bob Sutherland, Marion's Girl for Marion Flynt, Music Mount for Herman and Helen Snyder, Maroon for Punch Jones, Poco Bob for Hill Miller, Poco Dell for Jimmie Randals, Spanish Fort and Rebel Cause for Dale Robertson, Boston Mac for Frank Merrill, Go Man Go for Melvin Hatley, Leo San for G.B. Howell, Coy's Bonanza for Bill Moomey, Easy Jet for Walter Merrick, Dash For Cash for B.F. Phillips Jr., and uncounted others.
He has also painted such horsemen as Matlock Rose, and painted Longhorn cattle, Arabians, Paints, Appaloosas, and a 4 by 20-foot mural for Mississippi State University.
Behind many of his paintings, there are entertaining stories. Such as the time in 1956 when he got a phone call from Punch Jones of Tatum, N.M., asking is there was any way Orren could fix a hole in the painting of Maroon. It seems that one day when the kids were home by themselves, they started playing with a bow and arrow. The clock above the painting was the target. Sure enough, an arrow pierced Maroon right through the heart. Yes, Orren was able to fix it.
In addition to his talents with a camera and a brush, Orren can build and weld just about anything, and this has led to a sideline business of designing and building ranch gates for friends. If you drive through horse country in Texas and Oklahoma and see a handsome ranch gate, chances are good that it was designed and built by this artist.
Orren and Evelyn have raised four sons: Orren III, who's called Trey; John, Leon, and Robert. And so far there are nine grandchildren.
One of those individuals who enjoys life to the fullest, Orren is still burning the proverbial candle at both ends. Which is terrific, because the history he is recording with his camera and paintbrush will be a legacy the horse industry will enjoy forever.