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Sketching the world

How pencil artist Bernie Brown came to call Okotoks home

For longtime residents of Okotoks, the crest of Westmount will always be remembered as Bernie Brown hill.

That’s because the renowned pencil-sketch artist and his family lived in the lone house on the hill overlooking the cemetery from 1993, when they settled into town, until it was annexed and sold to a developer in 2005. Then they moved onto a property southwest of town with a clear view of the mountains, nestled in a small valley with a creek running through its heart.

The move to Okotoks is one the Browns will never regret.

“Okotoks was such a welcoming community when we first moved here, between sports – our sports and the kids’ sports – and all of a sudden they seemed to like my pictures,” said Bernie Brown. “A lot of pictures were from this area and they seemed to relate to it. It just turned out to be a wonderful move.”

The artist and his young family heralded from Swift Current, Sask., where he and his wife, Margie, had both been schoolteachers. Brown taught junior high physical education and art, and Margie taught high school.

Art had always been an important part of Brown’s life. He learned how to draw from his grandfather, and spent a lot of time in his youth with pencil and paper. In high school he would draw pictures for friends.

Though he’d never planned to become a teacher, that’s the way life led Brown when he went to university.

“Then I lucked out they didn’t have anybody to teach art at the junior high, so I said I liked art and I’d teach it,” said Brown.

He met Margie through coaching basketball.

She coached the high school team and decided to check out her feeder program at the junior high level, where she met her future husband – who had never so much as seen a basketball game in his life after growing up in a small town without a gymnasium and was doing his best to lead his team.

She gave him some pointers and eventually their relationship blossomed. That’s when Brown sketched Margie’s portrait, and was convinced by a fellow teacher to put on an art show.

From there the art career took off.

“It built big enough to almost every weekend through the fall we would travel to a show,” said Brown. “I would teach during the week and then I would go to one show maybe in Regina and Margie would go to a show in Edmonton, and we had this couple who looked after our kids at home.”

Over time it became too much to handle both teaching and art, so they both left their teaching positions and took up the art business full time. It was a busy lifestyle, at one time participating in as many as 50 shows in one year with the help of Brown’s brother and sometimes hired help to attend more than two shows in one weekend.

“The opportunity that was there in these places like Millarville were all over the place and they’re really a good venue to market art,” said Brown.

During their time on the road, the Browns recognized a need for more craft shows in certain areas, so Margie began organizing markets as part of the business. Two shows in Regina were only open to Saskatchewan residents, so she launched one that welcomed artists from outside the province and it was a hit. They also owned the Festival of Crafts in Calgary for a number of years, she said.

“Those were busy,” said Margie. “Even though they were weekend events it took most of a year to organize them.”

One show Brown was sure never to miss, even while living in Swift Current, was the Calgary Stampede Western Showcase, a juried art show at the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.

“We didn’t spend the first 15 years together on our anniversary because our anniversary was July 11, which always fell during the Calgary Stampede,” Margie said with a laugh.

Every year, Brown would return from the Stampede talking about how much he loved the Calgary area. The family often spent vacations in the area as well, skiing in the mountains, and they developed a fondness for the Foothills.

One year, while passing through to Seattle to watch a ball game, they stopped and looked at a house, which had sold by the time they came back through. They looked at the house on the hill and on a whim, put in an offer.

By the time they got back to Swift Current, there was a message waiting for them at home congratulating them on owning a new house in Okotoks.

“We hadn’t even told anyone we were thinking of moving,” said Brown.

It didn’t take long to settle into their new home, and in short order the Bernie Brown Gallery was operating out of the house on the hill, where envelopes were stuffed for Margie’s craft shows and prints were readied for Brown to take to different markets.

It’s also where he did his drawing.

Though much of the work seen at shows was prints, Brown was constantly working on original pieces. If nothing else, he needed to have at least 12 to 15 original pictures ready for Stampede each year in order to be accepted to the Western Showcase.

Pencil sketching can be a painstaking art form. Each picture takes Brown about 100 hours to create, and he has made close to 400 over the years.

He opted to sell prints rather than only originals in order to make a living at his craft.

“I went with minimum wage for my originals because I knew I could make money on my prints,” said Brown. “So if it took me 100 hours I’d charge about $700 for it.”

The inspiration for his work began with people and portraits, though he found when he drew specific people it limited his reach.

“I had a narrow audience for who was interested in that particular old man’s face,” said Brown. “It created a problem because then everybody wanted me to do their grandpa.”

From there he moved into wildlife, and branched out into western themes like old tractors or barns that would make people reminisce.

“I tried to always draw something people had either done or wish they had done,” said Brown. “If I drew an old tractor all blown in with snow out by the house, they might say, ‘I remember my grandpa had one of those in the yard, I loved going out to his place.’

“Anything to bring back a really positive memory
for people.”

The art isn’t the only part of the picture that tells a story. Time is taken with the title of every piece of work, so that the words that accompany a picture help guide its meaning.

A famous picture of a soaring eagle is entitled Above and Beyond, and has been used for a lot of retirement gifts or to thank people for doing something special, he said.

“The title a lot of times helped sell the pictures in terms of the thought behind it,” said Brown.

There was a lot of living and learning over the years. Brown found that when someone pointed him in the direction of a unique old barn, and he drew it, the picture didn’t have the same effect on people as the pieces that depicted classic barnyards, which more buyers could relate to.

He didn’t draw only to make sales, but wanted to ensure people would be happy with the results of his hours of work.

“I definitely drew for them to hang on their wall, because that was the whole reason I drew pictures – to hang on someone else’s wall,” said Brown.

Sometimes that meant Margie had to speak up and remind him certain pictures would only appeal to his personal taste. It made him sit back and rethink some of his projects, he said.

There have been some very popular pieces over the years, some of which can still be found in homes and businesses across the Foothills.

One of those works is Boys Will Be Boys, a picture of two young cowboys with their pants pulled down, peeing on a truck tire.

“That is a funny story,” said Brown.

A friend of his had given him a photo of two little girls sitting on a trough having a conversation with their jeans down around their boots, which was the inspiration behind Potty Break.

While drawing the picture, he decided it would only be fair to have a similar one of boys as well, and he called a friend up to ask if she could take a photo of her young boys peeing on a tree or a truck.

“She gave me a whole file of them, and that’s where those two pictures came from,” said Brown.

Years later, when the boys were about 17 years old, they caught up with Brown at Regina’s Canadian
Western Agribition.

“They came up to me and said, ‘I bet you don’t know who we are,’ and I recognized them but I didn’t,” said Brown. “And they went, ‘Well, we’re the two in one of your most famous pictures.’

“That picture, it was done sort of as a spoof for the fun of it, but it sure went over well. Some pictures turned out better than others, and it was never the ones I expected that had the biggest impact.”

After moving out of Okotoks and onto the ranch, Margie opened the first Boot Hill Gallery in Longview, in the building that now houses the Garside Wilson Gallery.

Its name came from their first Alberta home.

The very first picture Brown ever sold was of old cowboy boots, an image that became part of his logo on business cards and signs. The rest of the inspiration came from a friend’s visit.

“We were trying to think what we should name the gallery, and he goes, ‘Well you’re right above the cemetery, why don’t you call it Boot Hill?’” said Brown. “And we were on a hill. So that’s where the name came from.

“Everything has a little story to it.”

With the Longview gallery established, Margie went on to open the store in Okotoks and in 2012 they opened the doors to a Boot Hill Gallery in High River. That store was lost one year later in the 2013 flood.

Five years ago, the Browns closed the Longview shop and sold the Okotoks location, though Boot Hill Gallery still carries Brown’s work.

Now they’re enjoying their time without rushing to art shows or running businesses, spending hours with their grandchildren or helping out their son-in-law with his ranching operation across the road from their home.

They both look back on their years working together to manage the art business with fondness, despite its hectic schedule.

“It’s just a life we never thought we’d have,” said Margie. “We both were school teachers, and even when we moved out here we just had no idea…”

Brown said the lifestyle worked well for them, and it’s been “a wonderful ride.”

Being able to relax now and enjoy the fruits of his labour is a treat, he said.

“Sometimes I feel like Forrest Gump because I love mowing my lawn,” said Brown. “I’ll draw again for sure, but I’ve been tied up with my kids and other life things for the last while.

“It’s just so peaceful and so easy to just stay at home and go for a ride, or work in the yard.”

Read this and other stories in the full e-edition of The Okotokian here.