An Artist as Natural as the Red Earth of Oklahoma
Kevin Kilhoffer is one of those artistically gifted people who doesn't know the meaning of "idle time." Around the house it's hard for him to sit still without doodling. When he goes outside, as often as not he's got a knife in one hand and a block of wood in the other. As he describes in country-speak his need to always be fiddling with something, "I got nothing else to do, I'll find a few rats to kill."
He grew up on a farm in Elk City, Oklahoma, a town with a proud, pioneering history located along the historic Route 66. His dad raised cotton, corn, wheat, maize, livestock, and as a young boy Kevin was called upon to drive a tractor, build fence, milk cows and slop hogs, all before he caught the school bus at 7AM. "I think everybody ought to have a taste of that upbringing,” he says. "They did, they'd appreciate what they have a lot more."
Life wasn't easy for young Kevin. In the summertime he'd work 80 hours a week for his grandfather hauling weeds out of the cotton fields, and with what he was paid he'd buy school clothes. He had an older sister and three brothers, all younger, which had its advantages. "I didn't have to wear hand-me-downs."
He was always artistically inclined, but it was in the first grade that his abilities were recognized by others. "I went to a Catholic school, and when this nun realized I could draw she bought me a box of colored chalks and asked me to illustrate Bible stories on the chalkboard." It never occurred to him to develop his talents with formal training, but even as he took a job in the oil fields after graduating from high school, met his wife Belynda and started a family, he continued to "fiddle." Out of a deer antler he carved a little cowboy in front of a fireplace with a coffee pot and frying pan that was all of 3/8 of an inch in size, and could fit inside a thimble. He carved lots of walking sticks, his favorite the one where he turned a knothole into a tunnel with a train coming out, and the tracks wound all the way down the stick. Cartooning came naturally to him and when a friend opened a weekly newspaper in Elk City, he hired Kevin to be the cartoonist.
Living in an area rich in Western heritage had a big influence on him. "This is the land of the red man. It was known as Indian Territory. Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and at one time all of the Plains Indians followed the buffalo herds through here." His passionate interest in Western History has not only provided him with a direction for his artistic expressions, it has made him a real stickler when it comes to authenticity. "It drives me crazy to see modern roping saddles and Pro Rodeo buckles in what are supposed to be historic Western paintings."
The story Kevin likes to tell about his figurine "Woodland Hunter" goes like this: "[It] came to me through research and study of the northern plains tribes. I found records of a Franciscan missionary stationed at a fur trade fort dating back to 1836. In his notes he witnessed a Teton Sioux warrior ride into the fort. He wrote of the warrior's magnificent shirt adorned with scalps and the wonderful artwork decorating his horse. He found out later that this design on the horse meant the rider was a member of a war society and was an influential member of the tribe. Painting their horse with elaborate designs told who they were and where they stood in their craft or skill as warriors. The horse became a billboard of color and pattern for all to see and know the man who sat upon his trusted pony."
There is another story related to authenticity Kevin tells about "Woodland Hunter" that we like just as much: "I wanted perfect eyes for this horse, and I found them about seven miles east of here. This lady had a bunch of horses turned out in a pasture so I went over to her and asked if she'd mind if I drew some of her horses. She said that was fine with her, so I walked out into the field and all these horses come over to me and one of them was white and had a black muzzle and mane and eyelids - just what I was looking for. While I was sketching his eyes with a colored pencil and making notes, all the other horses seemed to want to see what I was doing, and they had their heads hung over my shoulder, they were slobbering and chewing on the drawing paper. It was a good day."
Painted Pony figurines by Kevin Kilhoffer:
Where do you live?
Elk City, Oklahoma. It's in the Southwestern part of the state, and I've lived here my entire life.
Where do you do your art?
When I whittle or carve, I generally go out in the yard. If I'm going to work on a painting, my studio is above a barber shop down on the old historic Route 66.
Who is your biggest artistic influence?
Remington, Charles Russell, and Will James, who was my real inspiration. He was one of the last of a dying breed. He cowboyed from Canada to Texas. He worked in silent movies as a stunt man. How he turned artist always intrigued me. He was serving a sentence in the Nevada State Prison for cattle thieving, where he started drawing, and it turned his life around. When he got out he started writing and illustrating his own books.
What's your favorite song?
Nobody will know it. I learned it in the first grade and I've never been able to get it out of my head. "Ain't it Good to be Crazy?" I can remember every word. "Boom boom boom... Ain't it good to be crazy, silly and foolish the whole day through...."
What's your favorite color?
Brown. I like earth tones. I'm sitting in a living room on a tan couch with beige pillows. There's a sand-colored Indian rug on the floor. The walls are cream. All the furniture has a brown finish. It took a long time to get my wife to love these colors.
Who is your hero?
My dad, though it took me years to realize it. After he passed away I'd meet people all the time who said what a great guy he was. Everyone looked up to him because there was nothing he couldn't do or fix. He was the last of the jack-of-all-trades. You wanted someone to build a barn, weld, break horses, he could do it all.
Favorite words of advice?
Do it now, before it stacks up on you. The longer you put something off, the harder it will be to get it done.