HOLLADAY — Richard Horrocks didn’t take up oil painting full time until late in life, when he had no choice and got painted into a corner, so to speak. After the fire and after the bankruptcy and after he broke his leg, only then did he make painting his day job.
“The only thing I had left was painting,” he says.
That was a decade ago, and since then Horrocks has sat at his easel painting some eight hours a day in a tiny cluttered shack that sits behind his Holladay home. His subjects are, well, everything — landscapes, seascapes, cityscapes, wildlifes, still lifes, portraits, cowboys, Indians and horses, executed in impressionist strokes of the brush and dashes of a knife (to see them for yourself, visit his website, richardhorrocksfineart.com).
His subjects come from everywhere — railroad yards in San Francisco, powwows on American Indian reservations, a rainy night in New York, quakies in Little Cottonwood Canyon and wooded hillsides in Heber Valley. He is rarely without a camera to record images that he will reference later when he sits at the easel. He makes a point of going for drives to look for inspiration.
“Sometimes I just go out there and paint until something happens,” says the 70-year-old Horrocks. “I get in a zone and time just goes by.”
His work has been published twice in three prestigious art magazines: American Art Collector, Southwest Art and Western Art. He has received an Award of Excellence and a cash prize from both the American Juried Art Salon and the National Oil and Acrylic Painters Society. He has received four Top 100 Finalist Awards from International Art Search, an Award of Excellence from the Society of Master Impressionists and awards from the Hagen Fine Art Museum and the Cape Code Art Association.
Horrocks didn’t come by his craft the usual way. For one thing, he was a brick mason and later a general contractor for 40 years and never had an art lesson of any kind in his life — he learned from books. He didn’t begin painting until his mid-20s.
He grew up in Salt Lake City, the oldest of seven children, then moved to Seattle and later Denver. He enrolled at the University of Utah, planning to become an architect, but changed his mind and dropped out of school, with a wife and children to support.
“I decided to become a rich and famous artist,” he says. “Then I found out my kids like to eat.”
He returned to construction work, which he had done throughout his youth. Starting at the bottom, he was a hod carrier — the worst of construction jobs — and worked his way up.
“Construction is not that far removed from art,” he says. “When you’re building, you’re creating. There’s a lot of fulfillment in creating something that will be around even after you’re dead.”
Since boyhood, he had sketched continually, drawing faces, athletes, classmates and animals — sometimes doodling them on the pages of his schoolbooks. But when he dropped out of college, he turned to a more marketable art form: painting.
After work each day, he went to the Salt Lake library and read everything he could find about artists, technique, composition, balance, design, color and light. He couldn’t even understand much of the terminology, so he had to read books just to learn the vocabulary necessary to read other books.
He began painting in the evening, fighting off fatigue after a day of physical labor. For four decades he worked construction, and, after a quick dinner, painted well into the night, sometimes into the wee hours. He sold his first painting when he was 24 and has been selling them ever since. He and his wife, Sara — his de facto business manager — travel to various art shows and conventions around the West to sell his work.
Horrocks retired from the construction business in his early 60s and invested his life’s savings in a resort hotel in Glacial National Park. He planned to live off the income of the resort, but fate had other ideas. Forest fires broke out two years later and burned the entire summer, creating a blanket of smoke over the area for months and killing the tourist season in the process.
With his financial resources being drained thousands of dollars every month, Horrocks hoped the winter recreation season would save him, but there was no snow. He hung on until the following summer season only to see another forest fire break out. He ran out of money and lost everything, including his home. Returning to the construction business to survive, he broke his leg in more than a dozen places after falling off a foundation and was forced to retire again.
“I wondered how I was going to make a living,” he says. “I was desperate. My wife kept me from living in a cardboard box.”
Forced to try painting full time, he fell into a steady routine: He paints all morning, takes a break and studies the painting in progress, then picks up the brush again in the afternoon. He turns out two to three paintings a week.
“Sometimes I find myself sweating and grunting when the painting is flowing,” he says. “It’s like a fight. It’s high energy. It’s like, I gotta get this done.”
Horrocks comes off as the human incarnation of Eeyore — a little downcast and gruff — but really he’s a softhearted, generous sort who gives away some of his paintings and teaches free weekly painting classes in the evening. He has done the latter for 30 years.
“After one of my classes I saw a woman trying to squeeze paint back into a tube to save money,” he says. “How could you charge someone like that? This is just paying things forward.”
His home is a minigallery, with every empty space on the walls filled by paintings. More paintings are stacked in a back room. Surveying his work, he says, “You don’t hit a home run every time you bat, but every now and then you stand back and say: ‘Wow. I didn’t create this. Where did this come from?' I don’t understand it.”
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org