Joe De Yong was enamored with everything related to cowboys and horses; so when he was not at school, he would help out at local ranches. He spent summers riding and seizing every opportunity to help at cattle roundups and brandings.

Then, in 1913, he was stricken with cerebral meningitis. His rehabilitation was long and difficult, and the disease left him deaf for the rest of his life, but it didn’t deter him. While convalescing from his infection, Joe mustered the courage to write to Charlie Russell, asking for advice on art, and included some of his sketches and photographs. In September 1913, Russell responded to his young admirer with a letter and a sketch and advice regarding painting and sculpting techniques.

In 1914, Joe convinced his parents to move to Great Falls, Montana so he could make a connection with Russell.

By January 1916, Joe, nicknamed “Kid Currycomb,” was living with the Russells. He worked as an apprentice to Russell in exchange for watching the house and feeding the animals when the Russells were away on their extensive exhibition schedule. 

While working for Russell, Joe’s deafness was no longer a disability. He and Russell’s use of the Indian Sign Language, at which Russell was an expert, helped create a strong bond of communication between the two and cemented their relationship. Russell and Joe would hand-talk back and forth about horses and the West, and they often went to the latest silent Western movies. 

Joe summed up Russell this way: “When I try to choose one word that will express his most outstanding characteristic I am forced to use Simplicity, with Sincerity running a close second.”

Joe stayed with the Russells until just before Charlie’s death in 1926.

At Santa Barbara, Joe worked alongside Russell’s friends Edward Borein and Maynard Dixon. Borein introduced Joe to people in his circle, which led to a meeting with film producer Cecil B. DeMille. As an illustrator and fine artist who worked quickly, he won over C.B. De Mille and would eventually work on twenty-one feature-length films as a technical and historical advisor in costume and prop design. He would go on to render more than 1,500 costume illustrations.

By promoting the authentic Western lifestyle and maintaining genuine friendships along the way, Joe contributed much to the fabric of the cultural West for future generations.

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