Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Popular western artist Bill Bender dies at 97

Oro Grande resident's paintings were collected by President Eisenhower, J. Edgar Hoover

Bill Bender, considered one of the few original and last plein air western artists who captured the beauty of the American desert, died Jan. 5 on his 97th birthday as a result of a fall at his farm in Oro Grande. (Courtesy of Ann Japenga)

By Rene Ray De La Cruz
The Daily Press

Bill Bender, a working cowboy and western artist whose artwork was purchased by a President Dwight Eisenhower and other political leaders, has died.

Known as “Cowboy Bill” by those who knew him best, Bender died Jan. 5 on his 97th birthday as a result of a fall at his farm in Oro Grande, according to his wife, Helen Bender.

“He was a good man who worked hard and always kept moving,” Helen Bender, 83, told the Daily Press on Wednesday. “We were married for almost 60 years, then we moved to Oro Grande from the Los Angeles area.”

Helen Bender said the couple continued to live in the same house, an abandoned tavern, that they began fixing up back in the 1950s, “when there was nothing out here but dirt.”

“Bill was quite the accomplished artist and he, his wife and his mother were the nicest folks around,” said Joe Manner, a longtime resident of Oro Grande. “When I delivered mail, I never had to put it in their box because one of them would always come out and greet me.”

Those in the art world knew Bender for his paintings of desert landscapes, horses, cattle and ranch scenes; and illustrated stories and written work. As a stuntman, the cowboy began unleashing his artistic side while recovering from an injury suffered during a rodeo ride, his wife said.

Bender was considered one of the few original and last plein air western artists who captured the beauty of the American desert, according to many online art sites. Plein air paintings are created outdoors, with the painter reproducing the actual visual conditions seen at the time of the painting.

Bender’s friend, Mark Cliath, said some of the collectors of Bender’s work included FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark and President Eisenhower, who was surrounded by bodyguards when he visited the farm on Old Highway 66 for some painting pointers.

Over the century, Bender was one of many artists who would travel to the lower High Desert to find the perfect location to paint. The Oro Grande artist would often camp out under a cottonwood tree and survive on grapefruit while he worked on his masterpiece, according writer Ann Japenga.

Japenga, a Palm Springs writer specializing in stories about the California deserts and the West who operates the website, said Bender was good friend and the “poster boy for longevity.”

“Bill was into holistic medicine and he was the perfect picture of health,” Japenga told the Daily Press on Wednesday. “He was 100-percent cowboy, but still very caring and kind.”

From movie stuntman to a lineman who traveled by horse to string utility line from Kernville to Lone Pine, Japenga said Bill Bender lived an adventurous life.

“I just got a card from him and his handwriting was perfect,” Japenga said. “He was a man who left his mark on the art world and will truly be missed.”

Bender, who admired the work of artist James Swinnerton and his lifestyle, began taking “sketching trips” with Swinnerton on unpaved roads in the late ‘40s. Bender said the two would often park their car on high ground in Arizona, throw their sleeping bags near their car and cook steaks over an open fire, Japenga said.

“Bill’s artwork hangs in big buildings in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles, yet he lived a simple life in a house that was probably in the family for over a hundred years,” Manner said. “They don’t make people like Bill anymore.”

Helen Bender said the family will have a private ceremony to celebrate her husband's life.