By Brad Reynolds
The Indian. The farmer. The railroader. The cowboy. The cavalryman. The storyteller. The bison. The horse.
These are the archetypes and emblems of the West, ones that modern day Montanans identify with today.
In some form or another, each has touched the life of artist Kenneth J. Hurley. Working in pen and ink, oils, and watercolor, he commands a brush like he commands a horse—with absolute authority and expertise. You’d think he’d been painting his whole life, but he’s been a full-time artist less than twenty years. His talent comes not from formal training (he’s self-taught), but from his passion for the subject matter which he portrays; the icons of the American West are dear to his heart.
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Hurley’s story begins on Idaho’s Fort Hall Indian Reservation, where his parents grew potatoes on a 40-acre plot. There, living in close proximity to the Bannock Indians, he became fascinated with Native cultures and the symbolism of the American buffalo. It was around this time that he developed a knack for sketching as well; however, art was nothing more than a hobby for the youngster. He hadn’t the time or resources to nurture his skills beyond a leisurely pursuit.
In high school, Hurley found an outlet for his talents in geography class. His family had relocated to Washington when he was eight, and in his entire education, cartography was the closest thing to an art class he’d experienced. Painting certainly didn’t look like a career path, and anyway, he already had a job lined up after graduation.
Hurley received his high school diploma on a Friday, and by Monday he was in the employ of the Northern Pacific Railroad.
For seventeen years Hurley worked as a railroader. He’d have kept at it longer, but an injury forced him in a new direction—working as a barkeep.
Over the next decade, Hurley tended local taverns, serving whiskey and beer to many a cowboy. One such customer was a friend from Texas who moonlit as an artist. After several conversations, the Texan convinced Hurley to put his artistic talents to use at an art show.
And he did. In 1978, he debuted his work—paintings modeled after his own life’s experiences.
Many of Hurley’s paintings feature horses that the artist himself rode. For as long as he can remember, he’s been breaking horses, and for years he competed in cross country riding events. Eight times he was named Washington State’s Rider of the Year, and he was a seven-time winner of the Washington State Championships.
Though he no longer races, Hurley continues to ride in Montana’s Seventh Cavalry reenactment (which takes place on the closest weekend to June 25 each year). In the early Sixties, he called to ask if he could participate in this event, but the representative on the line told him no; he lived too far away. The next year, Hurley said heck with it and drove all the way to the Little Bighorn Battlefield. He quickly convinced the reenactors of his skills ahorseback and that he was knowledgeable of the battle. They’ve made an opening for him ever since.
Cavalry and cowboys inspire many of Hurley’s works, but the subject he’s best known for is the buffalo.
“I’ve always liked buffalo. I’ve always painted and talked about them,” he says. “Anything to do with Plains Indians I have respect for. It’s such powerful stuff.”
To this day, Hurley funnels that passion into his brush, exhibiting his art across the West. Montanans may know him best from his many years participating in the WHA Footprints on the Trail Art Show at the Holiday Inn during Western Art Week in Great Falls. If “Kenneth J. Hurley” doesn’t ring a bell, you might recognize his nickname. He’s often referred to as “the Buffalo Man.”
“Other people started calling me that, and it stuck,” he explains. “It had to be buffalo. It suited me.”
After years of painting the icons of the American West, it seems Kenneth J. Hurley—the Buffalo Man—has become a Western icon himself.