In September 2014, John Phelps was given the Rose Award by the Susan Kathleen Black Foundation. The award read: “John Phelps, for best capturing the purpose and spirit of the foundation, and as testimonial to his leadership, and the great respect and admiration in which he is held, we accord him our highest honor by granting him the Rose Award.” This may have been the most emotional award ceremony in SKB’s history. Most people, including Phelps, didn’t think Phelps would live to even see September—he came down with a cancer-like disease in 2014 that doctors pronounced imminently fatal. He recovered, against all odds. So when we caught up with Phelps, we asked him what was going on in his head as he accepted the Rose Award.
His reply: “Why me Lord?!”
It’s a classic Phelps answer—self-deprecating, mood-lightening, funny, and demanding that the listener consider another angle to the situation.
John Phelps is known for his sculptures—although he’s a fine painter, too. So the man knows something about seeing things from many angles. There is one viewpoint he is loath to adopt: one that casts him in a golden light. In fact, Phelps sometimes seems determined to downplay his own goodness. “I think it’s outstanding that they gave the Rose Award to me, but I’m not sure what they saw in me to give it to me,” says Phelps. “I’m invariably around and help out whenever I can, but so are a lot of other people.”
Lee Cable, a fellow SKB Rose Award recipient, one of the organizers of the SKB workshops, and a close friend of Phelps, shed some light. Golden light, in fact. Sorry, John. “Whatever needs to be done, he’s always there, always volunteering, whether it’s moving tables or throwing people in his truck to show them where to paint,” says Cable. “He offers so much and gives so much to the workshop. Nothing is too little or too big, and it’s all done with humor and with laughter in his heart. We always know that he will represent himself well and represent SKB well.”
Phelps has served as an instructor at the Dubois workshop, and he has also served as an instructor at the Western Art Academy, a program at Schreiner University, in Texas, that puts art scholarship teens through an intensive painting and sculpting program each summer. A Wyoming native and a Vietnam veteran, Phelps has enjoyed considerable success depicting Western scenes as well as poignant military scenes. The artist is a regular participant at the C.M. Russell auction, an award-winner in the Arts for the Parks competition, and an invited artist at multiple prestigious museum shows. His commissions include monuments at military bases and sculptures for awards. Phelps is known for his extensive knowledge of Western dress, Western history, and Native American dress, weapons, and culture. “He’s also a good cowboy–a horse person–with lots of tales for the campfire,” says Cable. Many of those stories are firsthand accounts of eventful pack trips; Phelps has made extra money through the years as a hunting guide.
Phelps is also known for his work with soldiers and veterans. His son, Marine Corps Lance Corporal Chance Phelps, was killed in action in Al Andbar, Iraq, in 2004, and the HBO film “Taking Chance” chronicles the return of the 19-year-old soldier’s body to his parents’ home in Dubois, Wyoming. The artist’s sculpture “No Man Left Behind” occupies prominent space at both Camp Pendleton and Camp Lejeune.
SKB workshop participants can see an example of a large bronze by Phelps in Dubois—the piece “Cowgirl and Colt” is on display outside at 1st Street and Ramshorn, right by the Rustic Pine Tavern.
Phelps has only missed two SKB workshops. One was the first workshop, held in Colorado. The other was the year that Phelps was busy attending the Golden Globe Award show; “Taking Chance” was nominated in two categories. Kevin Bacon won Best Actor for his role in the film. All the other years, Phelps served as a key component in the authentic cowboy category at SKB. He and other Dubois locals, including Tom Lucas, Greg Beecham, John Finley, and Les Lefevre, are reminders of what goes on every day in that gorgeous landscape the painters are depicting.
If SKB participants love Dubois and its surrounding countryside, they may have Phelps to thank for it being a part of the SKB workshop experience. After the first SKB workshop, which was held in Colorado, SKB director Pam Cable was looking for other possible sites for the event. In the meantime, Phelps took Lee Cable, Beecham, and others on a pack trip in Torrey Canyon. The land made a big impression. Pam asked Phelps if he knew of any place that could host a workshop, and Phelps remembered Headwaters. SKB and Dubois became enjoined.
“When they did get to Dubois, they asked right off the bat if I could show some artists places to paint, and I said, ‘Sure.’ The second year they asked me to teach sculpture,” recalls Phelps.
Phelps has been recognized by a variety of groups, from veterans associations to art organizations. This recognition is a little different. “I’ve gotten a lot of awards over the years, but that’s the one that’s hanging on my wall,” says Phelps. “It’s from my peers, and I like it.” Ω