The annual branding of calves is an integral part of community life in rural Saskatchewan that continues from generation to generation.
A large new painting by Central Butte artist William (Bill) Philpott will keep these memories alive for a Swift Current family.
The oil painting on a canvas measuring 36 inches by 60 inches is a composite of a branding scene from the past and present that has been continuing for generations at a corral located in the Beechy area.
The painting was commissioned by Swift Current residents Vincent and Florence Flaterud, who still continue to brand their calves in this corral. Philpott formally presented the completed painting to them during a meeting at the Art Gallery of Swift Current, Oct. 15.
“This is going to hang in our living room,” Vincent said. “I'll see it every day.”
The branding of their calves takes place every year during the long weekend in May. He estimates this corral has been used by multiple generations for about 75 years.
“This is our corrals and our pastures, and so this is the scene that happens on this site,” he said. “This isn't exactly the same as it was 75 years ago. This is more modernized, but it's still almost the same for the last 40 years. It's a long-time tradition.”
The branding scene depicts the various activities taking place during such a day of hard work. Cows and calves can be seen in the background on the pasture, and other animals are in different pens inside the corral. Calves are moving through a chute towards the spot where branding teams are waiting for them.
The painting depicts the two different ways of branding. Traditionally the calves were flipped on their sides and they were held down while the branding iron was applied. The modern technique is to use a calf tipping table.
“I like the final product,” he said. “It brings back a flood of memories. It brings me back to my childhood, it brings me back to middle adult, and even now to some of them. I look at some of the people. I can pick out who's who in there.”
Vincent, Florence and their children Morghie and Conrad are depicted in the painting next to their truck, and with food laid out on the open truck bed.
Florence grew up in a farming community near Dauphin in Manitoba, but she only became familiar with the tradition of branding after marrying Vincent.
“I was involved in the food preparation with my sister-in-law or maybe his mom, depending on the year,” she recalled. “I had to cook all day the day before at home. Then that morning we could come and bring all the food, because there's hungry people there. They're doing physical labour, they're very hungry. So we had to make really good, big healthy meals.”
She will always take her camera along to the branding to take some photographs of the activities. Some of those images were used by the artist to create the painting.
“They're all so busy, they didn't even notice me taking pictures,” she said. “I take pictures as a hobby, and I just always bring it to branding. Every year I take pictures of everything going on. And sometimes when there's nothing for me to take pictures of, I'd be out in the hills taking pictures of cactuses or the crocuses or the puff balls, the cows, the scenery.”
Vincent attended his first branding when he was four or five years old. He has been looking for some time for an artist to create a painting of the Flaterud branding. He felt a painting will be able to capture these memories in a way that a single photograph will never be able to do.
“We were talking about this in the mid 90s, and I didn't really find anybody that had the style that I liked,” he said.
He saw some of Philpott’s art during an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Swift Current, and he immediately thought he finally found someone to create the painting he wanted.
“That was the style I was looking for,” Vincent said. “It took me a while, because I've approached other artists before and they weren't keen on doing it, whereas Bill is coming from a farming background and his style fit the style.”
The key aspect that attracted him to the work of Philpott was that his paintings were telling a story in an engaging way.
“It was the stories within the story,” Vincent said. “Like when you look at this, there's something happening somewhere.”
Philpott was eager to take on the commission, even though he knew it was going to be quite an undertaking to create a painting with so much detail.
“I jumped at the challenge, because it's my style and I wanted a challenge, and I just love a challenge,” he said. “I have done a number of commissions in my life, and I've done a number of rather big projects.”
He started to work on the painting just two weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Saskatchewan in early March. Vincent gave him a rough drawing of the corral and he also used a variety of photographs to piece together the scene.
“I had no picture of the fences, except what was in the background of the other photographs of the people, and so I pieced together what this looked like and then Vince told me there should be a gate there and there should be a gate there,” he recalled. “Then I got Vince to tell me how the cattle actually moved to the corral system, and so then from my knowledge of what they would be doing I had to piece it all together and fabricate a lot of it out of my own imagination, because the photographs had limitations.”
According to Philpott the most difficult aspect of the project was to accurately create the facial details of the various individuals.
“The likenesses, the faces are very small, and so to draw a portrait you usually draw a portrait about life size,” he said. “So to draw those portraits and to actually have them look like the people they are when they're only half an inch tall.”
His goal as an artist is to tell a story and to use different colours in an intense, but controlled manner in his paintings.
“I'm an expressionist,” he said. “It's about expression, and colour. I always start with the brightest colours I can and then I bring it down, so that it's like a glowing ember of fire. So it's not like a flame of fire, but it's more like a glowing ember of fire, that boiling kind of heat, but under control. It's very intense.”
He is very pleased with the final result and it fits in very well with what he is also trying to achieve in his other works.
“This is one of the most challenging projects that I've ever taken on, because to make it sing like art and still do what it's intended to do and say everything it's intended to say and bring it all together as a piece of art was a challenge,” he said.