In just a couple weeks, the Character in Context show opens at the A.R. Mitchell Museum. This event celebrates the enduring importance of illustration in the contemporary art sphere, featuring a comprehensive presentation of process work hanging alongside the traditional final work.

The Builders by Scott Brundage

A bunch of fantastic illustrators (many of them Muddy Colors contributors) are participating in the show, and many of the artists – a third of them, myself included – will be traveling in for the preview, opening, demos, and art talks.

I asked Elliot Lang, the show curator, and Cody Kuehl, the museum’s board president, for an interview to learn more about the genesis of this event and what we can expect. They were kind enough to oblige!


Sarah: How did this show come together?

Cody: I started putting together events at the A. R. Mitchell Museum two years ago. Arthur Roy Mitchell is the fountainhead, and we have the largest collection of his work in the world.  It is called the A.R Mitchell museum of western art, but he really was an illustrator at his core. He was on multiple newsstands in 40s and 50s, his work was on magazine covers, upwards of 5000 a month in circulation, so he had some serious street cred. He never sold his work, so he never had the reputation of Remington or Russell. The museum director and I decided we should do an illustration show. My friend Elliot is an awesome illustrator, and I think he knows some people, so I suggested we ask him if he could put together a nice little illustration show. Then he turned around and put something amazing together, inviting top-tier international illustrators, so it went from an idea to something amazing in the course of a week. He’s really knocked it out of the park. In previous years the museum didn’t feel like it was in the right place where they could do an illustration show, but right now we’re in a good spot for it. Sometimes there are weird hang-ups about illustration, like it’s not fine art enough.

Henry the Sheriff by Arthur Roy Mitchell

Elliot: Yea, I think the lines are blurred a bit. There’s a good crossover in gallery work that is illustration, illustrators dip their toe into fine art. But yes, I just spoke to another interviewer (to NPR) and she was like ‘It’s just illustration.’ No, it’s narrative art. Illustrators tell a story through picture, and I think so much fine art is that exactly now.

Cody: I had a former board president of the museum say “Well, Mitchell never really made the pivot to fine art, so he never became a real painter.” And I’m looking at him thinking…you’re the board president of his museum! One of the things we’re trying to do is set illustration up on a higher level, and at the museum it’s one of our goals to promote illustration as credible, because it is. We’ve had really great work come through the museum in the 2 years I’ve been running events, but the caliber of this show is at such a high level.

Onmyou by Hope Doe

Sarah: Considering that A.R. Mitchell was an illustrator, and perspectives like the one you heard from the prior board president, does this show pivot the way Mitchell’s work is being discussed, or how it’s being presented by the museum?

Cody: I think so. We wanted to do a brief history of illustration installation from the museum archives, to say this is what Mitchell did, this is how his work was presented in magazines. If you think you don’t like illustrators, let me introduce you to CM Russell…who was an illustrator and a quintessential western artist of a generation. If you don’t like Russell, I’ll introduce you to Remington… another illustrator. We wanted to draw that thread through from that to Julie Bell, to, well, all the illustrators that we have in the Characters in Context show, doing the same thing today that these other artists were. In history, there was a pivot away from western art – western illustration – from illustration to fine art. Generationally, the stories people tell became about sci fi and fantasy, and as people got older they glorified the heyday of illustration. Those old illustrators changed to fine artists in retrospect. The stories that we told changed, so it fell out of vogue to be an illustrator…but all these prestigious artists were illustrators.

Elliot: The illustration golden age was up until WW2, and post war it was all modern art, we don’t want to see pretty things, there’s no such thing as beauty in art anymore. Illustration survived, and it’s been around during that, but when the old illustration was reintroduced to the mainstream it was as fine art. Norman Rockwell was now relevant as a fine artist because he captured American life. I think he was at MoMA.

Sarah: They did an exhibition of his work here at the Houston Museum of Fine Art too, it was great!

A room full of art, ready to be hung!

Cody: We were talking about how to do this history of illustration installation, and Nicholas (a museum board member) discovered that the thing that changed the covers and the prominence of illustration was TV. Kids stopped buying magazines and comics and watched TV. Just huge segments of that market collapsed.

Elliot: And now we’re seeing the burnout of constantly being plugged in, with AI as art on demand, and people are getting tired. If you watch Tiktok videos of artists, or Instagram reels, some of the most popular things are artists painting and drawing, and you don’t get that with AI. With AI, you plug it in and it barfs out an image, no love or passion to it.  When an artist is hand-crafting something, it’s like a cooking video…people say “OMG, you’re making that? How do you do that?” It’s so important now in the digital age to have this traditional artwork hanging in front of you. You saw it get made, and now here it is at this museum, hanging on the wall. That was important to me, I wanted to feature all traditional artwork. Some prelims and sketches are digital, that’s fine, but the final product, I insisted that it be a finished final painting/drawing/sculpture. We have Red Nose Studio, who made something tangible, and it blew my mind.

Horseless by Red Nose Studio

Cody: I really appreciate that you wanted all analogue work. You challenged folks to make something new too, didn’t you?

Elliot: When we reached out to Cynthia Sheppard she said she works digitally but always does a pencil sketch. But after talking to Greg Manchess, he challenged her to paint something, and she said, “It’s on.” And she knocked it out of the park. It’s so cool to get that caliber of illustrator (such as Cynthia) to commit to making a traditional piece for this show.  I’ll point out that Greg Manchess was the first one I asked and his participation from early on was so helpful to enlisting others.

Sarah: Why a show about process?

Elliot: How we work is the hidden gem behind the illustration. Everyone starts differently. Some people have sketches and color studies and then a final, some have reference shots, so it was an interesting take on featuring illustration in a gallery space. Instead of just calling it ‘Illustration Process’, what’s the context of the character? What’s the context of what the illustrator is doing?

Cody: My piece for the show is a guy with a guitar and car, and I’m embarrassed about the sketch. The interesting thing about the process stuff (and I am putting up that sketch in the show) is those leaps into the uncertainty of the process that pay off in the end. One of the things that both of you will see is that we have a process show by Mitchell that we put together last year from the archives. We literally have the photo he took, the sketch he did of the photo (which he sent to his publisher) and it has publisher notes on it, and then the painting of that sketch, and then the cover of the magazine. We have 5 or 6 like that.  We have Mitchell’s process on the first floor, and the Characters in Context will be on the second floor. It’ll be a nice compliment.

Sarah: We talked about the shared illustrative heritage of western art and sci/fi and fantasy, but can you talk to me about the intersection of these genres in the context of this show?

Elliot: I thought it would be an interesting opportunity for sci-fi/fantasy illustrators to paint something western themed. Is this the excuse they need to dabble in western? Ryan Pancoast, who’s someone I know from IX, did this ink drawing book in a fantasy western setting years ago. So I thought, I’d love to see a Pancoast take on western art and how he’d portray the west. He said he’d been waiting for the opportunity and recommended reaching out to Victor Adame Minguez too. I loved that this was an excuse for people who normally paint elves and space and stuff, to portray the west. What if we got a western piece from Sarah Finnigan, or from Jeremy Wilson? And now we have that. In western art, we’re seeing a resurgence, we see it with Maggiori, Teal Blake, etc, all contemporary artists, and there’s a narrative behind their work. So why not us, why not the illustrators?

Gunsmoke by Jeremy Wilson

Cody: I’m a big believer that all the sc-ifi/fantasy is just the next iteration of the west, as the new frontier. You look at the Marvel movies, and in the first Avenger movies, it’s a group of people that come together to protect the town from the outside forces. In the second Avengers they fall out of favor with the law, so now they’re outlaws, and then in the third the they’re the antiheroes that still have to pull together and save the day. People get caught up in what is fine art so much they forget it’s the same stories. I look at it in a very circular ways, we keep telling those same stories. I love what Victor Adame did, with a different take on the west, and it’s so cool what’s come together

Elliot: Not everything in the show is that western flavor; some people said they weren’t into cowboys. Colin and Kristine Poole said they weren’t into western themes. So we talked about it, and I let them know that it doesn’t have to be what their idea is of western themes, you don’t have to put a cowboy on a horse. What is the west like for you? I thought I lost them for sure, but then they made this brilliant sculpture of a cow lady…it’s brilliant. And I wanted to offer that excuse to paint the west without limiting what this show could be. Rob Rey and I were talking, and he has a lot of space stuff. He had a sketch, color study, and a final painting for Boy Scouts of America. And it fit perfectly into the theme.

Sarah: Can you share any behind-the-scenes anecdotes or interesting insights about the artists or artworks featured in the show?

Elliot: I’ve been working to get the word out for the show, reaching out to local newspapers and radio stations here, taking out a print ad. I put it as ‘this is the largest exhibition of original illustration in Colorado,” and then I thought…wait, this is the largest in the western United States. It is traditional work by living illustrators, and it is for sale. Sure, there’s the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art out in California, who bought Julie and Boris’ work, but they’re not offering that for sale, and their collection is not housing work from all living illustrators.  So it’s true, this is the largest exhibition in the west of living illustrators, for purchase. Being in Trinidad blows everyone I talk to away too, it’s in Trinidad, CO.

Sarah: It is interesting that it’s in Trinidad! We drive through there every summer on the way to visit my parents in Colorado, and it’s become a tradition to stop there because it’s a unique place.

Cody: I think Trinidad is an intriguing little town. Bat Masterson was the sheriff for a while, you have known quantities in the west here. There were bootleggers running through, and Al Capone was there for a while teaching miners how to bootleg. It’s a real wild west town, way past the days of the wild west! The building that the AR Mitchell museum is now in was a department store, and they had to have a cash rail system to send all the money back to the safe immediately, because in the 1910s there was still banditry. The backdrop of this show is perfect. One thing about the museum we pride ourselves on is taking care of our artists, so we’re doing that reception at Number 38, an artist reception at my house, and we always put out a good spread for our openings, and good food for the Saturday demos. We pride ourselves in taking care of people who come out and are a part of these things.

Photo of Downtown Trinidad by Joe Mabel.

Cody: We have a world-class show, and we’re very grateful for all the people who are participating. My philosophy is that if people don’t know about it this year, they’ll know next year. The caliber of work we have this year is a great foundation for what this show can be. And we have space in the museum to have an entire event like IX on the third floor, we have the capacity to do all kinds of things. This is just a start.

Sarah: It’s an interesting comparison, to IX, since it is a world-class show in a small town, an hour+ away from the airport.

Elliot: Right, IX is in Reading, PA. Reading is an hour from Philly. Trinidad is not on the east coast, but it’s a similar vibe, with low stakes, because we’re not paying for convention space, and hotels are inexpensive. There’s an exciting opportunity for an event spread over 2-3 days when many folks are making their way from Denver or Colorado Springs. Why not be inspired by what they’ve done at IX? As we see how this show goes this year, we’ll have an idea of what works, doesn’t work, and what else we can do.

Wolf Dreams by Rob Rey

Sarah: There’s a preview in Denver, at Number 38, on June 5th, the opening at the museum on June 7th, and a demo by Greg Manchess on the 8th. Tell me more about these events!

Elliot:  The sneak peek is a digital preview of all the works that’ll be available at the show. We’re trying to build hype, but also get the general public interested. It’s open to the public at Number 38 in Denver. If you can’t make it to the opening, you can see the work here and if someone’s interested in something they see, there’s an opportunity for sale. On Thursday we’re doing an artist reception at Cody’s place. On Friday the 7th is the Opening, where there will be some speeches, and then everyone comes in to see the art, and have some hors d’oeuvres and beer. Then on Saturday, Greg is doing a live demo from 11 to noon. He’s graciously giving us that time and it’ll be really engaging. In the context of Trinidad, folks coming from Denver, Colorado Springs, how often do you get to see a world class illustrator come down, work, and ask him questions? After that, we’ll do some artist talks, we are discussing doing a few round tables that day too, talk about AI, talk about illustration in fine art, etc. Whoever is in the door, if they want to stick around, now we’re going to talk art and have free lunch. The main thing is to engage with the main public with illustration and narrative art.

Milo Talon by Greg Manchess

Sarah: What do you hope viewers will take away from experiencing this show?

Elliot: I would love that anyone who is unfamiliar with illustration, or even if they’re a fan of illustration, will walk away seeing it is alive and well and it’s thriving. One thing I’d point out, when Cody and I began planning the show, we were seeing all the AI models and nobody is seeing behind the scenes with those. This show features the work that goes into these finished products. So, in the press release, I wrote that this is a direct rebuttal to what AI is. I would love for the general public, and even those who understand what AI is, they can see that what people make is really important, is still happening, and is a beautiful process.

Cody: I would like for people to take away that illustration is not less than…it is actually more-than. We have many great shows coming through the museum this year, and all of them have exceeded expectations, and I think this one is going to be the best show we have this year. For people to walk away with that, reassessing their concept of illustration, would be great.


A.R. Mitchell Museum of Western Art

150 E. Main St. • Trinidad, CO • 81082

Museum Hours

Tuesday – Saturday • 10:00 am – 4:00 pm

RSVP for Opening Night here