"Douglas Lake Ranch, Grassy Hills"
Jack Lee McLean, "Douglas Lake Ranch, Grassy Hills," oil on canvas, c.1975, 20" X 28".
JACK LEE MCLEAN (1924 - 2003)
Jack Lee McLean may not be a household name in the contemporary Western Canadian visual arts community, but he created more than 1500 paintings during his lifetime. His work has been criticized as too illustrative, formulaic and sentimental, though it reflects the ranching culture of the mid 20th century — the solitary life of the cowboy and his horse. Despite the sentimentality, to those who know and understand ranch life, McLean’s paintings are an honest interpretation of the relationship between man, horse and land. The titles of his paintings evoke a place and time — “Scouting the Pass,” “Trapper’s Pass,” “Cold Journey,” “Chasing Wild Mustangs”, “Heading Out” — that gets into the heart of the popular image of the west.
Born in Vancouver in 1924, McLean received his training at the Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr University of Art + Design). He served in the Royal Canadian Air Force, where he continued to develop his skills as a painter and muralist. In 1942/43 he created his most ambitious work, a 60-foot-long, 10-foot-high mural depicting Canada from coast-to-coast, which he painted on the side of the Mess Hall at the then-new military airport in Tofino, B.C.
McLean’s biggest benefactor was Charles N. “Chunky” Woodward, of the Woodwards department store. Beginning in the early 1960s, Woodward invited McLean to spend time at his Douglas Lake Ranch near Merritt, B.C. It was the largest cattle ranch in Canada, with more than 500,000 acres of undisturbed land.
Hambleton Galleries in Kelowna has several examples of McLean’s work, including works from the Merritt visits. Hambleton owner Stewart Turcotte recently acquired an early piece titled “Douglas Lake Ranch, Grassy Hills” that is representative of the fine detail work of McLean’s earlier paintings. “You can almost make out the stitches in the denim jacket,” Turcotte says. McLean’s rider faces away from the viewer, looking out over a vast expanse of grassland — no trees, no cattle, and no mountains. In the foreground, the artist has captured the whispers of grass, fading off into the distance with a technique that approaches pointillism. McLean describes the peaceful link between man and nature, man and animal, the patterns and rhythms of the land in a loose, realistic manner, his signature style.
The painting was recently sold to a man who had been a summer employee at the Douglas Lake Ranch in the late 60s and 70s. He remembers McLean being invited by Woodward to paint at the ranch. “This painting absolutely captures the essence of the interior grasslands, the horse and the rider,” he says. He bought it because it reminded him how much he loved the lifestyle and of the ranch he knew in his youth. The new owner also thinks he recognizes the cowboy in the painting — most likely Mike Ferguson. “Mike was always an exceptionally good friend and was often featured when an artist painted at Douglas Lake,” he recalls. “I was delighted to find this piece, which so vividly represents my recollections of a time and place in my life.”
Later in life, McLean moved to Driggs, Idaho. He had developed a much greater following in the United States than he had in Canada. The move also gave him the opportunity to pursue his other passion — skiing the Teton Mountains. McLean died in 2003, after a day of skiing the Tetons with friends. He returned to their home and passed away peacefully in his favourite chair later that day — a fitting exit for a man who loved the outdoors.
— Richard White