What do a forty-foot iguana, 1920s cowgirls, dancing frogs, Roy Rogers, and the world's largest cowboy boots have in common? All have served as inspiration and subject for the art of Bob "Daddy-O" Wade, one of the great Texas artists of the latter half of the twentieth century. The iguana, frogs, and boots speak to his tendency to work in monumental forms, taking otherwise trivial aspects of his Southwestern heritage and projecting them on a magnificent scale in steel frames, concrete, and urethane foam. The vintage cowgirls series of hand-tinted photo emulsion canvases show something softer in Wade, a nostalgia and a desire to reconnect with and revive the Western past. And, well, Roy Rogers was in actual fact Wade's second cousin, and he attributes his early meetings with Rogers as firing in his mind the myth of the American cowboy. Each of these has made him into one of the ablest artists in capturing Texas identity in art-by turns brash, playful, crude, crafty, and always larger than life.
Cowboys and cowgirls are only one element of the American West that comes through in Bob Wade's art. His upbringing in El Paso, on the Texas border with Mexico, added a great deal to his vision-Wade's constant use of bold colors, his allegiance to kitsch décor echoing the pińatas and markets of Tex-Mex border towns, and his outlaw sensibility all grow out of that freedom that such borders provide. An adolescence in El Paso also plugged Wade into the hot rod and low rider car culture of the border region in the late 1950s, lending him a bit of that bad-boy greaser air that led later friends to dub him "Daddy-O," a kind of border-beatnik-bohemian. The 1960s found him turning those hot rod sensibilities loose on art as he pursued that subject at the University of Texas at Austin, and, then, Wade left his home state for California in the late 1960s to further his art education. The heady atmosphere of Berkeley in the Sixties introduced Wade to the cutting edge of American art, an edge he brought back with him as he settled into a series of teaching gigs in Waco and Dallas at the end of the decade. As with many Texan artists, visual and musical, it is in part this experience of going away and then returning, of learning the best that the outside world has to offer and then, as an artist, turning that newly trained and attuned eye to the culture that molded him, that makes for the special quality of Wade's art.
His Texas work during the period included over-sized dragonflies and gigantic maps of the state created from earth and found objects, but he was equally significant as an ambassador of Texas culture to other states and countries. The "Texas Chic" style that became so popular during the decade of the 1970s often found Wade's creations very near its center. In 1977, for example, Wade took his show abroad, exhibiting what he envisioned as a Texas carnival sideshow in the Paris Biennale for Young Artists. For his contribution, he outfitted a mobile home trailer as a museum of all things Texas, including taxidermied armadillos and rattlesnakes, a two-headed calf, plastic bluebonnets, a custom saddle, and a set of speakers that blared Waylon Jennings songs. The whole thing traveled to Paris, wowed the French, and then, one day, disappeared into the European night, not to be seen for some years. When it resurfaced in the late 80s, all the Texas artifacts were gone. They're still out there someplace, Wade figures. So, be sure to keep an eye out for that two-headed calf.
As a collector of such Texana kitsch, Wade knows few equals. He proved as much in the art-documentary Jackelope of 1975, in which Wade and filmmaker Ken Harrison went on a road trip across the state collecting materials for a display of Texas culture in a New York art museum. Along the way, the two meet such legendary figures as cowboy hat maker Manny Gammage as well as characters who get their kicks by blowing up broken-down automobiles and a gentleman who claims that fried rattlesnake meat cures cancer. Wade's ability to take the pulse of Western weirdness comes across strongly here-you can see the Texas that he loves and distills in art, but here in the guise of the real-life folk who provide his inspiration. After years as something of a "lost work," this film is about to receive an anticipated revival in a restored, digitized version on-line at the Texas Archive of the Moving Image (www.texasarchive.org).
Perhaps Daddy-O's greatest claim to fame thus far, though, involved his construction of a forty-foot iguana. A tricky technical feet in and of itself when Wade made the thing for an outdoor art park, the feat's bravado was multiplied when the artist placed the thing atop the roof of the Lone Star Café in New York City in the late 1970s. Now, for those unfamiliar with the legendary Lone Star Café, this was once the stomping ground of all right-thinking Texas exiles who found themselves in the big city, a raucous venue that served as home away from home for the likes of Kinky Friedman, Doug Sahm (temporarily a roommate of Wade's), Joe Ely, and Billy Joe Shaver. Billy Joe Shaver's words, in fact, were emblazoned as a slogan in the café's front: "Too Much Ain't Enough." More Texan words had perhaps never been uttered, and a more fitting slogan for the art of Bob Wade would be hard to find. For proof, one need only look above that sign to the shiny, steely, blue-green monster of a lizard that Wade had placed on top of the joint. The city of New York made him take it down somewhat later for safety reasons. Texas is just a bit too big for New York sometimes.
Other great commissions followed. In Washington, D. C., Wade constructed on a traffic median a piece he dubbed The Biggest Cowboy Boots in the World-Wade estimates their dimensions by saying they could hold approximately 35, 000 gallons of beer each. He built a series of eight-foot dancing frogs (doing the tango, supposedly) for a Dallas nightclub, only to find them a more permanent home at Carl's Corner, a tiny truck stop of a town run by one of Willie Nelson's old buddies. In terms of symbolism, I find myself particularly drawn to a giant Indian head nickel coin he made in 1988 for a Dallas country-western joint named Tommy's Heads-Up Saloon. The Tommy of the place's name was Tommy Allsup of Buddy Holly's Crickets, and he gave the place that name because on a fateful night in 1959, Allsup and Waylon Jennings lost a coin toss over who would get to ride in a plane to the Crickets' next gig. Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper won, and, tragically, the plane crashed in a blinding snowstorm. Allsup always felt himself blessed after that, and Wade built him a totem to prove it.
Beginning in 1979, Wade began a series of canvases that would introduce him to new audiences and bring a new set of aesthetics into his work. Upon finding a 1922 postcard of cowgirls lined up at a rodeo, Wade decided to enlarge the image on a photo emulsion canvas and then hand-tint it in vibrant colors to bring out the details in the women's faces and outfits. Wade saw it as a tribute to the American cowgirl, a brave, fun, and underrated figure who began to undergo a revival around the time that Wade turned to them as a subject. Wade discovered that this practice of photographing cowgirls at the rodeo was a common one at the time, and he turned to reproducing a long series of these images on canvas. He felt, too, like he was giving these women of the 20s and 30s a new lease on life. Shortly after the sale of this first piece, legendary rodeo cowboy Larry Mahan commissioned him to do a similar piece for his wife Robin. Interest snowballed accordingly, and audiences responded so wildly that Wade began to place them in images for t-shirts and other apparel. A beautiful book of these works, Bob Wade's Cowgirls, appeared in 2003 and deserves a place on the shelf of every fan of Western Americana.
Wade hasn't slowed down a bit in recent years, remaining a prolific and well-regarded artist on the Texas scene who continues to work in public, monumental forms, as well as the hand-tinted photographs of Western subjects that have brought him more recent renown. He lives in the hills west of Austin, amidst a buzzing studio filled with books, images, canvases, and Texana that continue to provide his inspiration. His works remain prominent not only in homes, but on the American landscape, especially in Texas. You could probably run a Bob Wade tour of the city of Austin, in fact, that would include the likes of restaurants like the Hula Hut (with Wade's giant fish leaping out of a lake), the Shoal Creek Saloon (with his American football helmet constructed from a Volkswagen), and Ranch 616 (with a large rattlesnake across the top of the restaurant, plus myriad works and design touches inside). Bob Wade's imprint on the culture is truly that of a Texas original, and his work a thing of beauty-twisted, quirky, too-much-ain't-enough beauty. For a peek at more of Wade's work, and to see a selection of limited-edition prints and posters, visit Daddy-O at www.bobwade.com.