BRYAN, Texas —
Somerville-based painter T. W. Vanya’s body of work confirms an old adage: artists paint what they know. For Vanya, that’s cowboys and pretty women. Almost every canvas he’s completed over the past two decades, over 500, depicts one or the other (or both).
“When you can paint cowboys and women, my God, I’ve got the best of both worlds,” Vanya said. “Why not? Who wants to paint a building or a tree when you’ve got people standing there?”
The 65-year-old painter acts as gruff as the rough-and-tumble cowboys and ranch hands he spends his days painting but Vanya is a self-described (and reporter-confirmed) “people person”.
“I like to paint folks,” Vanya said. “I like to paint people because I like people. I enjoy their company. I enjoy their stories. I enjoy their lives. That’s what gives me joy,” Vanya said. “And if I’m not painting, I’m not happy.”
When Vanya was five he opened up his first box of crayons. He still remembers the smell of the fresh wax and the thrill that accompanied it. From then on, he took coloring very seriously.
One year later, in Mrs. Morgan’s first grade class, the burgeoning artist won his first coloring competition. His prize: a 25 cent set of “the worst watercolors with the most horrible brush ever produced.”
“She handed me that little tray with those pallets of color and I thought she had handed me a block of gold,” Vanya said.
Soon after, Vanya started painting and he hasn’t slowed down since.
The Texas native came of age in the John Wayne era, the golden age of spurs-and-saddles films. For young Vanya, entertainment turned to inspiration and, decades later, the artist said he’s still influenced by the strength and character of the cowboy.
“At the basis of the cowboy genre it’s everyday men doing a very hard physical job with honor and integrity and supporting a family on basically minimum wage,” Vanya said. “That’s something to be looked up to.”
The full-time artist said he can’t imagine doing anything else. But, it isn’t easy.
“It’s one of the hardest fields to making a living at because it’s not needed in an everyday sense,” Vanya said. “You don’t need artwork to survive, you need food. You don’t need artwork to shelter you, you’ve got a roof over your head.”
But, art brings your walls to life, Vanya said.
“If I do a painting that doesn’t do anything but bring a smile to your face once a day, I’ve done my job,” Vanya said. “That’s the gift.”