The Saratoga Sun -

The Stampede has slowed, but it is not over

Jerry and Ann Palen discuss life, work and arthritis

 

Erik Gantt

Jerry Palen sifts through works in progress at the drawing table in his studio. Palen said he designed his studio to have north facing windows in order to provide the most desired light.

Jerry Palen, Creator and artist of "Stampede," the largest rural cartoon series in the United States and Canada, isn't letting rheumatoid arthritis stop his creative flow.

Jerry and his wife Ann have settled down in their home at the Saratoga Inn subdivision where he now creates his cartoons, paintings and bronzes. Jerry said, "I just can't work under the stress of the deadlines because some days I will be fine and some days I'll be so swollen up you wouldn't even recognize me." He now walks with a cane and is on a regimen of powerful drugs, some of which he feels slow his mind down. However, on a Platte Valley morning where the temperatures started in the negative double digits, Jerry was in fine form, talking about his life and his art.

Jerry has a "very bad" case of rheumatoid arthritis which has considerably slowed his work habits. One of the drugs Jerry's doctors prescribed is methotrexate, which has common side effects of dizziness, drowsiness among other things. Jerry said he does not look forward to Mondays when he has to take the drug.

According to Ann, Jerry has always been a bit of a workaholic. "I was the guy that would get up at three o'clock in the morning and work ... now it has changed dramatically because I take all these pills and that has really slowed me down," Jerry said.

Even with the slow-down, the adventures of Elmo and Flo, Stampede's main characters, continue. "I'm as busy as I have ever been," Jerry said, and he and Ann are still producing the popular Stampede calendars, including the ones you get at Carbon Power and Light.

Jerry said his doctors are working hard to find the right combination of drugs so that he can work more, and hopefully play more. "I used to be the world's greatest fly-fisherman, or at least that's how I called myself," Jerry said while also lamenting not being able to run these days.

A Western life

Both Jerry and Ann were raised in Cheyenne and met in an art class at Cheyenne High School during the early 1960s. "I got a C, Ann got an A ... but I got a wife," Jerry said.

Jerry's dad, Dr. J.S. Palen, was a large animal veterinarian after World War II. He worked for the Wyoming Hereford Ranch, which at the time was the largest Hereford Ranch in the United States. Dr. Palen was instrumental in eliminating dwarfism in cattle, which was a big problem at the time. The veterinarian was also a highly regarded collector of western art.

Jerry recalled one experience with his father after the Stampede cartoon had become a success. "He was called the Pope. He asked me to go to a western art and memorabilia convention. I walked in the door all of the sudden all of these people were turning around and pointing and I went, 'Oh no,' I've got to start signing autographs. They walked right by me, they wanted to see Dr. Palen," Jerry said.

At the beginning of his collecting days, during WWII, Jerry's father brought home a Charlie Russell watercolor that he had bought. His father had spent a considerable amount of money for the water color based on his Captain's salary and Jerry's mother was not enthused, wondering how they were going to eat for the rest of the month. As it turns out, buying the Russell water color was an example of Dr. Palen's eye for fine art. A few Russell pieces sold for over $5 million in the 2000s with several examples selling for over $1 million. From the late 1940s to the late 1960s Jerry's dad was considered one of the premier experts on western art and was often called on as an authenticator and appraiser.

Ann's family has been in Wyoming since it was a territory. Her great-grandfather, John Riner, came to Cheyenne with the Union Pacific Railroad. Riner was part of the territorial council that formed the state of Wyoming and he eventually became the first District Judge for Wyoming.

Becoming an artist

There is no doubt that Dr. Palen's love of western art and the ranchers he worked with influenced Jerry. Jerry fondly remembers travelling around with his father on veterinary calls and of the art that could be found at his boyhood home.

"It was just amazing, you know. My brother and I would come home and say, 'watch out where you step,' because there would be paintings on the floor from some art dealers," Jerry said, adding, "I was also instrumental with helping my father work on cattle and horses and large animals and dogs and cats and things like that out in the country. That's where I developed the characters for my cartoon series."

Ranchers and farmers that Jerry met through his father were the impetus for many Stampede cartoons. He also met many people at conventions who inspired him to draw cartoons and told him stories that were later worked into Stampede panels. "It was easy for me because I like to laugh and I like to listen to people's stories," Jerry said, commenting that he would rather be the interviewer than the interviewee.

Elmo and Flo are an amalgam of many people in the ranching and farming community according to Jerry. "I think they are the typical ranch couple," Ann said, acknowledging that the age of ranchers seems to be getting older.

Jerry's mother was not as excited about having an artist for a son. "My mother said, 'I know you want to be an artist, but that just means you are going to end up being a bum,'" Jerry said. At his mother's behest, he earned a degree in economics and political science from the University of Wyoming.

Ann and Jerry were married on Feb. 1, 1964, in the middle of their college years. While Ann was attending Mills College in Oakland, Calif., Jerry had a fateful meeting with Nicholas Firfires in Santa Barbara, Calif. Firfires was a well known western painter and illustrator, and was the cartoonist who created the Buck Jones series. Jerry studied under him for three years in California.

Jerry credits Firfires with recognizing his sense of humor in cartooning. "If I would draw an elk, I would have the elk tripping over a log or something," Jerry said.

Back home

When the Palens returned to Cheyenne from California Jerry got a job as a bank examiner, a profession he lasted at for two years.

"Bank examiners are notorious because at four o'clock in the afternoon their day is over and they head for the bar. I was never much of a drinker so I would go back to my room, and not having anything to do I would start drawing cartoons," Jerry said.

On a fateful Thursday in 1973, Jerry told Ann that he did not want to work as a bank examiner for the rest of his life and she replied that she was sick and tired of listening to him whine. Ann told Jerry to call in sick on that Friday and they went to the offices of the Western Horseman magazine to sell his cartoons. The publisher bought all 10 cartoon that Jerry brought for five dollars a piece. "Monday morning I called up and quit my job," Jerry said.

After that, a friend helped network Jerry with some newspapers and his cartooning career was under way. "It's one of those funny things you could never do in a million years. The cartoon series just took off. Pretty soon we had lots and lots of clients and newspapers and magazines," Jerry said.

The Wyoming Stockman-Farmer was the first real serious account that Jerry got. Bob Larson at the paper asked him what he called the cartoon series. "I had not even thought about it, and I said 'Stampede,'" Jerry said. He then named the characters Elmo and Flo. From there, Stampede was turned into books, t-shirts and a variety of collectibles.

After Stampede took off Jerry and Ann bought part of the Wyoming Hereford Ranch, the Mare Pasture, and they raised two boys, Eric and Brian. Eric is now a criminal defense attorney living in Glendo, Wyo. and Brian is a critical care pulmonary doctor in Seattle, Wash.

Recalling his sons' childhood days, Jerry said, "They were embarrassed about their father because their father didn't do anything. They would leave the house in the morning and I'd be in my pajamas at my desk working and they would come home at night and I'd still be sitting there at my desk, as far as they were concerned still doing nothing."

Jerry gave one example of the embarrassment saying, "(Eric) had a show and tell at school and the teacher wanted to know what everybody's father did. He was not about to say 'my father is a guy who is a cartoonist' ... so he said, 'He's a dump truck driver.'"

No snowbirds

Jerry and Ann say they plan on staying in the Platte Valley full time. "We like Wyoming, we like Saratoga, it's always been our favorite," Jerry said as Ann noted they had a place in Texas for awhile but decided they would rather be in Saratoga.

Initially the couple chose Saratoga to stay close to their aging parents and for Jerry's love of fly fishing. "We just ended up here because it is such a pretty little town and it's a nice place to be," Ann said, noting that Saratoga is no "Mayberry."

Jerry and Ann have created an artist's sanctuary for themselves, amassing quite the collection of western art. Much of it came from their parents with Jerry's dad's focus on bronzes and paintings and Ann's parents focus on Navajo rugs. A lot of Jerry's work, both finished pieces and ongoing works surround the couple at home. Jerry said he continues to work on commissions and will keep up "re-runs" of the Stampede series like Charles Schulz did with the Peanuts cartoons.

Erik Gantt

Jerry Palen shows off some of his current pieces in his gallery. Palen is most famous for his cartoon Stampede, but his bronzes and paintings command attention from western art aficionados, including several U.S. presidents.

Presidents including Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have commissioned artwork from Jerry to be given as presents. Many clay sculptures on their way to becoming bronzes show that Jerry is far from done with his creative process. His bronzes have always been in demand and two can be found on the Wyoming state capitol grounds among other notable institutions.

One bronze that stands out is of the wild horse named Desert Dust. Desert Dust is the "poster child" for the wild horse movement according to Jerry. Ann said that a famous photograph of that palomino from the Red Desert started the romanticism of wild horses.

Jerry's bronzes are not the strictest interpretations in terms of realism. "Even the bronzes have humor," Ann said, adding that a local collector has commented that what he appreciates about Jerry's art is the humor.

The numerous paintings, both oil and watercolor, on easels and leaning against walls in Jerry's studio are more proof that the public should keep its eye out for Jerry's distinctive style at galleries around the west for some time to come.

 

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