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  • Writer's pictureShea Stanfield

On the Road Again

“My first loves were architecture and landscapes in my paintings. However, when I came nose to nose with the ‘buckaroos’ of the Great Basin, I didn’t know what the American West really looked like.” William Matthews. Artist William Matthews began his journey West when his family moved from Connecticut to a mysterious city named San Francisco in the late 1950s. By the mid-1960s, young William took to the emerging counterculture of the Bay Area with all its raucous concerts, colorful posters, and an entirely new way of looking at life. William's parents were right in the thick of it; he describes them as, "My dad was a 'madman' who ran an advertising agency, and my mom was a fine art artist who loved oil painting. She was instrumental in forming the foundation for the next generation of great fine art artists, which included me."

Joan Matthews taught William to look at his subjects and actually 'see' the shapes, textures, colors, and shadows that became a painting. William says, "Once I learned to 'see,' I knew I could paint anything. Painting became my comfort zone from that point on." He credits the painting process with calming his hyperactivity by helping him to concentrate for long periods. William particularly loved watercolors for their transparency and how colors and shapes could move on the page. As an admirer of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy, William became proficient in using various sizes of sable brushes and perfecting their benefits in his application. He had no idea at the time where the flow of paint on paper would lead him in his creative life.

In 1970, without a car and very little money, William moved down the coast to Los Angeles, settled into a basement apartment, and hit the pavement with his extensive portfolio of work. The objective was to land a job as an album cover artist. William knew he had what it took; meeting others who thought the same was a matter of time. It wasn't long before he walked into the office to two individuals he considered to be the enlightened ones, Al Schmitt and Tommy LiPuma, two record producers for Blue Thumb Records, Leon Russell’s new company. William says, “They sat across the table, looked at me, and took a chance that I could come through.” The next thing William knew, he was designing the cover for Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks live album release. Life would never be the same.

The spinoff of the album cover art was the display posters included in the album jackets. The posters were especially popular with new releases for providing wall art and further advertising for the band and the album. William saw creating posters as a logical next step; after all, he was a collector of old posters from the turn of the century and the World War I era. In those days, John Hartford was William's traveling friend who was particularly fond of the Mississippi River Boat named the Virginia. John managed to locate an old image of the boat during one of his many antiquing trips. To his delight, William turned the image into a poster, which became so popular that poster art became an additional branch of William's watercolor paintings, album covers, and concert and venue posters.

Wanderlust struck William again in 1972 when he packed up his self-constructed wooden camper and headed for Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where he spent the summer living in a teepee. However, summer faded into fall, and a chill quickly swept across the Rocky Mountain West. No doubt this motivated William to move on to Denver; William states, "Not long after getting settled into a studio space, Dana Crawford, who was rescuing a block of Larimer Square of Victorian buildings, asked if I would do a one-person show in one of the renovated storefronts. The fact I’d never done anything like that didn’t stop me.” The open-ended invitation resulted in a series of watercolors based on invented products and sayings that amused him. With the help of Seth Milliken at The Harvest Press, all 54 paintings created for the exhibit were professionally framed and hung. William created a poster to advertise the show and plastered it all over Denver. The result was nearly all the paintings were sold, setting William off to look for similar opportunities.

By 1975, with the spirit of discovery and adventure nipping at his heels, William took off for Europe with a backpack, painting supplies, a few dollars, and his A. A. Farland banjo. "Eventually, I landed in the small village of Oxford, England, where I made a living by painting portraits of the great houses. The project satisfied my love of architecture and enjoying the English countryside." During this time, William upped his game with traditional watercolor techniques by committing to paint on only beige and blue-gray tinted papers, a preference he continues to bring to his work today.

The Great Basin of the Western United States became William’s landing place with an invitation from Kurt Markus to attend a Cowboy Poets Gathering in Elko, Nevada, in 1983. Stunned by the vast landscape of rugged mountains, plateaus, and rolling sagebrush, little did William expect to find isolated ranches hidden in the landscape or to meet the tough men and women who lived and worked there. Through the past decades, William greatly admired the individuals who dedicated themselves to their families, one another, and the conservation of the land. He's spent over three generations sketching and painting these remarkably sturdy individuals, resulting in lasting friendships.

The time spent in the West reconnected artist William Matthews to his love of poster and cover art. He is a sought-after artist for events such as the annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival, the Cowboy Poets, and various Rodeos. Western Authors, such as Christopher Buckley, Tom Stoppard, and Annie Proulx of Brokeback Mountain fame, have also discovered William’s talent, enlisting his paintings for their book covers. In 2017 William received a commission to do a mural for the Fort Worth Dickies Arena over their south entrance. With the help of John Grant, Buckeye Blake, and international artisans, the three created a stunning mosaic and sculpture piece that will last for decades. William says, “I have taken great satisfaction from the diverse and unpredictable projects that have come my way, and in many ways, I feel I’m just getting started.”

William Matthew’s watercolors are in numerous private and public collections, including Joslyn Museum, Gilcrease Museum, Warner Western Records, Autry National Center, Museum of the American West, Booth Western Art Museum, Buffalo Bill Historical Center and Museum, National Cowboy Hall of Fame, Old West Museum, Eiteljorg Museum, Phoenix Art Museum, Western Spirit: Scottsdale's Museum of the West, Tucson Museum of Art and the Denver Art Museum. William's works are displayed at the William Matthews Studio in Denver, Colorado, and the Simpson Gallagher Gallery in Cody, Wyoming.


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