Arts + Culture

A Down-To-Earth Vail Valley Cowboy is an Unlikely Fine Artist

Professional rodeo and contemporary art collide in one of Vail's most unusual locals.

By Reilly Capps December 13, 2016 Published in the Midwinter/Spring 2015 issue of Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine

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Sometimes you visit an art gallery and leave scratching your head. A series of canvases exploring the color black? Thrift-store junk nailed together and priced at five figures? That urinal on the wall ... is that ... art? Or a very public bathroom?

That’s one reason a collector like Bill Woolford appreciates an artist like Bradley Chance Hays. Sure, Hays is refined: after all, he’s an artist-in-residence at Vail Fine Art Uncrated, which deals in museum-quality artwork and displays Hays paintings alongside the work of Russian impressionists like Vassiliy Kossenkov. But Hays is also a cowboy and an Okie, the kind of guy who, when asked if he considers himself an accomplished artist, tucks his thumbs into the front pockets of his Wranglers and drawls, “I don’t know about that, but I guess I draw a few pictures now and then.” Hays paints what he knows: cowboys, Indians, wolves, buffalo.

“It’s not just an orange dot on the wall,” says the gallery’s owner, James Tylich.

“He’s not pretentious,” adds Woolford, an executive at the Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta who owns a place in East Vail, eyeing a painting of a gnarly-looking wolf on display at a Hays show the gallery hosted in December at the Vail Four Seasons Resort and Residences—a painting he ultimately decides to buy. “He has a firm handshake.”

Chance—the name the artist goes by—Hays grew up in northeast Oklahoma, where he came by that handshake naturally. When Hays is back home, he practices his rodeo skills in an indoor arena on the family ranch. Competing on the professional rodeo circuit, Hays has distinguished himself as an aggressive roper, accurate with the lasso, quick to hog-tie a calf or haul down a steer.

His two passions, divergent as they seem, complement each other; his artist mother taught him to draw when he was five, and a year later his father, a professional bulldogger (a.k.a. steer wrestler), gave him his first rope. Hays has rodeoed in wind and hail and lightning and in standing water so deep he was afraid the calf was going to drown. The injuries have piled up: his ankle has a plate in it; his shoulder, too. (That last one came from riding angry bulls.) But the suffering of rodeo helps him with his art, Hays says, because “art is painful.” When he gets frustrated, when the paints won’t cooperate or the ideas won’t come, that’s when he heads out to his horses. Out there, the physical pain of saddle sores and rope burns takes his mind off the mental pain of artist’s block. And the colors, sights, and feelings of the outdoors bring him inspiration he never gets indoors.

The physical pain of saddle sores and rope burns takes his mind off the mental pain of artist’s block. And the colors, sights, and feelings of the outdoors bring him inspiration he never gets indoors.

And the time outdoors is good for more than just head-clearing: he trains and sells both horses and sheepdogs. Plus, he is so good at rodeo that, when he isn’t painting, he’s riding—and winning. In January he was headed to Oklahoma City for the International Finals Rodeo, where he qualified among the top 15 athletes in tie-down roping. There in OKC, he was also fixing to install a few of his works in the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum—and work the room to try to sell a few.

When he returns to the valley, he’ll come back to the cabin he rents up Gypsum Creek where he also stables three of his horses—Scorpion, Little Miss, and Superman. And he’ll go back to living his strange dual life: one part rodeo cowboy who can tie a calf in seven seconds, one part up-and-coming artist whose works are now owned by the likes of Russell Westbrook and Mikaela Shiffrin.

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Both worlds converge at past Chance Hays exhibition in the Fireside Lounge at the Four Seasons, a place where manhattans swirl and fancy women in fur scarves take in the scene. Around Christmas last year, a dozen members of the Hays clan came up from Kansas and Oklahoma just for the show, conspicuous for their Stetsons, silver belt buckles, and cowboy boots.

“It ain’t every day you get to the Four Seasons!” bellowed Bart Hays, the artist’s uncle, a welder. “This is top of the heap, right here! Who wants some chicken wings?” Uncle Bart told a story about how the artist once broke his right hand doing rodeo and had to paint with his left—and the result was just as good.

“Left hand, hell!” asserted Bart, stretching the tale as high as rodeo bull’s eye. “He could paint with his mouth if he had to!”

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