The North Valley Public Library has a new mural gracing the front wall of the building on Main Street in Stevensville. A young girl sits under an apple tree reading a book titled “Rebecca” while her dog snoozes as horses and cattle graze in the lush valley beneath the Bitterroot Mountains. And right in the middle of it all sits the cowboy artist Charlie Russell taking it all in.
Artist Ken Daly, who donated his work to the library, said when designing the mural he pictured a young girl reading a book under the apple tree as her dog slept nearby and let his daughter choose a title for the book. Although many people upon seeing want to complete the title as “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” the 1903 children’s novel by Kate Douglas Wiggin, that’s not the book his daughter chose. The book she chose was the 1940 novel “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier. He said in the beginning he had no intention of adding Charlie Russell to the scene. But after visiting the Charlie Russell Museum in Great Falls he just had to stick him in.
Daly grew up a fourth generation Californian but went to college back east and eventually connected with his father’s family in New York where he learned the business of commercial art. Daly said at first he actually wanted to be a mural painter but after the first few scathing reviews of his work he changed his mind. Now he thinks maybe he shouldn’t have taken the criticism so seriously.
Next, he thought he would become an independent illustrator. But his wife at the time wanted to go back to school so he opted for a steady job and got one in a design studio, mostly illustrating ads for companies like Champion Lumber and First Banks, Pepsi and Pepperidge Farm.
Then he met a horse trainer named Paul Burns and from that experience came up with the idea of painting horses. Not painting horses literally, but painting portraits of horses. He got pretty good at it and decided to follow the market, which led him to an interest in the Quarter Horse market, which led him to Texas. When the oil companies hit hard times in the mid-1980s, his business painting rich Texans’ horse portraits began to flag. So, he packed up and headed to Florida where Polo Ponies were the big thing.
“Palm Beach, at the time,” he said, “was the equine capital of America in winter.” The rich guys would fly in and out and were hard to approach, he said, but their horse handlers were around and they saw his work and wanted it. He ended up painting Polo Horses and Thoroughbreds until 2008. He ended up trying to make it in New York again but after three years he said he couldn’t stand the crowds.
When he was living in California in the late 1970s, he had three cousins who moved to the Bitterroot Valley. They told him to stop by if he was ever passing through and he did.
“They said I would love the place, and I did,” said Daly. So, when he finally had to skedaddle out of New York for some wide open spaces, this was the place he headed for and he has no regrets.
“When I worked in those other places I always got a check, but I rarely got a thank you,” he said. “Here I get a lot of thanks. People just say thank you and they really mean it.”
He doesn’t expect or need the same kind of money he used to make, he said. But right now he is a painter for hire in the Bitterroot, or a prospective art teacher for anyone wanting private lessons or lessons for their kids. He’s getting a bit old to be breaking broncs, but he can still brush them up. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.