Saturday, July 9, 2011

Stewart Cameron, Cowboy Cartoonist

By Ken Mather in Canadian Cowboy Country (2003):  "Stew Cameron was a cowboy at heart but a cartoonist by profession. Throughout his life, he gave the gift of his remarkable talent and humour in a series of delightful cartoons depicting the cowboy way of life.  Stewart Cameron was born in 1912 in Calgary and it is no coincidence that the year marked the beginning of another Alberta institution, the Calgary Stampede and Exhibition.  Stew grew up in Calgary and began demonstrating his amazing talent to draw cartoons at an early age.  By the time he was in high school, he was submitting his drawings to the Calgary Herald, and was recognized as an up-and-coming young artist.  Stew went on to study art at Mount Royal College and such was his talent that he was offered a job at the newly created Disney Studios in Hollywood.  This opportunity seemed to be all a young cartoonist could hope for.  But, after a brief stint at Disney, Stew began to long for his native foothills and a simpler life.  At that point, he took a job at the Calgary Herald as their full-time editorial cartoonist.  Political life in Alberta at the time was far from dull.  The Social Credit Party had recently come to power and its leader, Premier William Aberhart, was a caricaturist's dream.  Big and blustery "Bible Bill" Aberhart and his sometimes-questionable right wing policies became the regular butt of Stew's cartoons.  His artistic attacks on Aberhart were not well received by the Social Credit faithful, many of whom threatened Stew with physical injury.  It got to the point that Cameron had to leave the Herald building by the fire escape to avoid confrontation at the main entrance.  The political passions reached their zenith when unknown attackers bombed Cameron's house.  Stew was not in the house at the time, and the bombers probably knew that, but their message was clear: leave Aberhart alone!  Undeterred, Stew continued to use his mighty pen to skewer the Premier and his Social Credit policies.  In spite of Stew's cartoons, William Aberhart was re-elected Premier in 1940.  But, even as Stew continued to attack Aberhart's policies, the world's attention was drawn elsewhere.  World War II had broken out.  Stew strongly supported the war effort in the face of Social Credit's lukewarm commitment but he was prepared to offer more than his pen when it came to offering support.  He enlisted in the Canadian Army and served throughout the war.  When he returned to Calgary after the war, Stew found that things had changed.  His favourite subject, William Aberhart, had passed away and the Social Credit Party had adjusted many of its more extreme policies.  He went back to the Herald for a couple of years but, in 1947, took a job at the Vancouver Daily Province.  When his health began to fail in 1949, he returned to his beloved Calgary.  There he finished out his days doing freelance work and publishing collections of his cartoons.  As a young student, Stew had spent his summers running his own pack-string in the Rockies, west of Calgary.  He came to know the pack trails of the foothills and mountains like his own backyard.  In the process he developed a friendship and, above all, a respect for the ranchers and the working cowboys who made their home in the rugged backcountry of the foothills.  Stew loved the daily work with horses and his knowledge of the capabilities and personalities of horses grew along with his artistic ability to draw them.  His drawings show knowledge of every muscle and contour of the working cow horse.  It is not surprising then that his love for the country and personalities found its natural expression in cartoons as he faithfully and humorously portrayed the cowboys, the horses and, of course, the "dudes."  The adventures and misadventures of day-to-day life on the trail were Stew's favourite subjects.  Among these early gems are his delightful series of drawings about his first and favourite horse, Count Von Krut otherwise known as "The Strawberry Roan."  These early cartoons sat in his files for years as his attention was focused elsewhere, on the political life of Alberta.  But they were never forgotten, nor were Stew's love for the cowboy and his way of life.  Stew's early interest in the cowboy had continued when he was at the Calgary Herald.  His cartoons of the Calgary Stampede show a unique insight into rodeo and the rodeo cowboy's life that has seldom been duplicated.  His attention to detail is amazing and sometimes a close examination of the background in his cartoons tells us as much as the subject in the foreground.  Stew found the professional rodeo cowboys as rugged and genuine as the tough working cowboys of his youth and, with his keen eye and irrepressible sense of humour, his cartoons told their story.  A large selection of his early pack string cartoons, along with some of his best cartoons of the Calgary Stampede, were collected by his family and published in 1972 in four thin books, What I Saw at the Stampede, Let the Chaps Fall Where They May, Weep for The Cowboy, and Pack Horse in the Rockies (Dudes, Denims and Diamond Hitches).  These contain some of the best of Stew's cowboy cartoons and represent a lasting chronicle of cowboy life in the 1930s and 1940s that would make any artist proud.  Unfortunately, by the time of their publication, Stew Cameron had passed over the Great Divide.  But his legacy lives on as one of the true recorders of Western heritage."
- Ken Mather has been involved in researching and writing about Western Canadian history for 32 years.  He is currently the General Manager of the Interior Provincial Exhibition in Armstrong, B.C.

TODAY'S GOOD NEWS: I think I know where there's a copy of What I Saw at The Stampede!