Chuck Knowles is a lifelong cowboy who can’t take to the saddle anymore, but nowadays portrays his real-life events in paintings.
Knowles, 81, grew up during the Dust Bowl on a ranch in the high desert outside of Muleshoe, Texas, before spending his life outdoors in the Mother Lode.
His father owned cattle and horses and made his own boots on the family ranch, before “it all went dust storm on us,” Knowles recalled.
When Knowles was 10, the family moved to California for new opportunities.
The government purchased their cattle for $5 each and calves for 50 cents each and killed them — considered already doomed because there was no feed for anything, Knowles said.
The eldest daughter had gone to California ahead of the family. They all followed, minus a daughter who died of illness in infancy.
All eight remaining family members crammed into a Ford Model A for the ride across half the country. They stayed only a few months in Riverbank before settling in Sonora.
His father set up a leather shop in town that made saddles and repaired shoes, mostly.
Knowles doesn’t even think the place had a name. Everyone just knew where it was, and he had to work there often to learn the family trade.
His father was known by many as “Doc.” He performed veterinary work, even though he’d dropped out before graduating grammar school.
While working at the leather shop in Sonora, Knowles got to know all the cowboys. He’d always wanted to be a cowboy.
Every chance he got, he went to ranches and helped out. There was “never any mention of money,” he said.
In grammar school, he started riding with older rodeo guys and kept with it through high school, missing more than a few days of class, he admitted.
He won a few rodeo competitions. But, he said, it wasn’t about winning. It was about seeing what he could do.
He applied the same attitude later when assisting with several Western movie shoots in the area. He did horse work and occasionally played a background horseman.
He began working at local dude and pack ranches, showing people around horses and taking them into the high country. Part of that job was shoeing horses.
It ended up being something he was known for. One time, Knowles got called by a friend asking him to drop everything and come shoe nearly 50 horses before guests got there in three days. He shod more than 20 horses the first two days each and only had a few left on the last day.
Knowles ultimately went to California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, as it was the only university in the nation that taught horseshoeing, he said.
His senior thesis was writing and illustrating a corrective horseshoe manual — one that ended up being used as a textbook at Cal Poly and other later horseshoeing schools.
“Corrective horseshoeing” is building horseshoes to correct things like a horse’s gait or stance and is specific to the horse and what activities it performs, Knowles explained. His work still remains in portions of modern textbooks, he said.
He worked for decades as a horseshoer all around the Mother Lode and sometimes beyond, and occasionally took art jobs.
Knowles had drawn as a kid with pencils or whatever he could find, then mostly moved to pen and ink.
In high school, he finished all of his mechanical drawing assignments with A’s in two weeks, so his teacher told him to “go draw trees,” Knowles recalled.
He painted part of a mural inside Smoke Cafe in Jamestown, which was later damaged in a fire, and did many pen and ink drawings for Copycat Press, printing letterheads and the like. He illustrated a book by a former park ranger and “never got a penny for it,” he said.
His first color painting was a watercolor ultimately printed on boxes for livestock salt licks.
He kept up his art only here and there as he became one of the founders of the volunteer Tuolumne County Trails committee more than 20 years ago. The committee advises the county Board of Supervisors on horse, bicycle and walking trails in the county. It created all of the trail portion of the General Plan, and has created and maintained dozens of county trails for free, he said. He’s the council’s president.
His art depicts many moments from out on those trails, some decades back.
One piece, “Never Drag a Barbed Wire Gate on Granite,” depicts the pandemonium of horses and people after someone made a rattlesnake noise with a gate in the backcountry, resulting in Knowles being thrown off his horse. He’s caught mid-air and upside-down in the painting.
That painting and many others were displayed through August at the Tuolumne County Library.
Knowles has exhibited and sold art locally and in Oakdale, Modesto, Stockton, Reno, Carmel and Palm Desert.
He was also a guest artist at a Western Artists of America national convention in Reno in 1968.
One of the most recent and perhaps proudest placements of his art was on the cover of “Between the Icebox and the Stairs,” a book co-written by his wife, Joanne Knowles, with James L. Reveal. She authored the book under her maiden name, Jo DeEds.
The book is about the wonders of coming of age in the Sierra Nevada and was printed in June.