Legendary Texas multi-media fine artist and rock ’n’ roll “artlaw” Boyd Elder, who spent a lifetime expressing his artistic vision with often flagrant disregard for convention or consequences, died in San Marcos, Texas, just after daybreak on Saturday, Oct. 6. He was 74.
Elder was a longtime resident of the tiny West Texas town of Valentine but adventuresome and always on the move. Just in 2018, he’d traveled to Los Angeles, Hawaii, San Francisco-Humboldt County, Italy, Santa Fe and all over Texas working on new art ventures, a book project, and visiting family and friends.
For what turned out to be his final road trip, Elder had rented a battleship grey 2018 Dodge Hemi muscle car in El Paso. He arrived in Austin on Sept. 24 to spend a few days with Shaula Elder, the youngest of his two daughters (eldest daughter Flaunn and her family live in Kona, Hawaii).
Elder left Austin on Thursday, Sept. 27. He was “at large somewhere in Texas,” Shaula said – and at some point, swapped rental cars for a chili pepper-red 2018 Dodge Challenger muscle car – until the early hours of Saturday, Sept. 29, when he rolled into San Marcos, just 30 miles south of Austin.
Elder went to San Marcos to visit longtime friend and road trip sidekick John M. Thornton (among their wildest escapades was flying to Cuba in March 2016 to see The Rolling Stones’ “Havana Moon” concert).
Thornton was with his best friend at the end at Central Texas Medical Center in San Marcos. Elder and his daughters had a chance to say a last goodbye via video phone call early Saturday morning, Oct. 6. He died at 6:11 a.m., the official cause of death listed as natural causes.
“He died of living life to the fullest,” said Flaunn, who, like Shaula, considers herself very much her father’s daughter. “The last time I saw him, just a few months ago, I told him, ‘When you die, Dad, I’ll know you died by your own rules.’ And he did.”
“It’s so overwhelming, and we’re so sad,” Shaula said. “We loved our dad so. He drove us absolutely crazy, but we loved him a million times more than he drove us crazy.”
Elder’s daughters’ sentiment is echoed by many, if not all, of those who knew their chain-smoking, hard-drinking dad and shared hair-raising adventures with him, along with fine cigars, food, art, music, intoxicating substances, women, and wild tales – not necessarily in that order.
“He’s part gypsy, part rambler-gambler, desert rat, sophisti-hick and art connoisseur, and he seems to be everywhere at once,” Texas musician and longtime friend Joe Ely said in 2016.
“With Boyd…you just felt like there was this imminent danger,” Ely said. “It takes a mighty spirit to wreak all that havoc.”
Publicly, Elder was best-known in the contemporary American art and music worlds as creator of the iconic painted-and-adorned animal skull art for the covers of Eagles’ “One of These Nights” and “Their Greatest Hits” albums in 1975 and 1976.
The former album sold several million copies and the cover art earned a Grammy nomination, while the latter is now the best-selling album of all time in the United States (38 million copies as of August 2018, per the Recording Industry Association of America).
Untold millions more Eagles fans who bought those albums around the world are likewise familiar with Boyd Elder’s skull art, even if they don’t know him by name, or know those pieces represent just a fraction of his creations spanning 60-plus years of chasing art.
Elder’s other works range from experiments with plastics and resins, holographic foil and aluminum, and more recent large-format multi-media pieces. His art has been collected by some of the contemporary art and music world’s most diverse and reputable collectors.
One of Elder’s 1970s creations, a set of discs 7½ feet in diameter titled “Corona,” hangs in the Psychology Department at Stanford University, purchased and donated by Elder patron Jerry Rosen.
“You can’t take a spotlight and shine on a specific inch of me and say this is what I am,” Elder said in 1978. “I want the freedom to express myself through any medium.”
Boyd Elder – A Biography
A self-described “artlaw” whose alias was “El Chingadero” (“The F**ker” in Tex-Mex slang), Boyd Elder had deep family and artistic roots in Valentine, Texas, a wide spot along U.S. 90 about 155 miles south of El Paso and 465 miles west of Austin. Valentine boasted 134 residents in the 2010 Census, down from 187 in 2000.
Elder’s great-grandfather, William Eli Bell (1861-1919), was among the men who laid out Valentine, which straddles the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks and was incorporated on Feb. 14, 1882. He donated the land and (most likely) drilled the well for the local water works, which was built and operated by Boyd’s grandfather, Howard Laben Bell Sr. (Jan. 15, 1898-Aug. 27, 1956) and his son Howard L. Bell Jr. The elder Bell also constructed Valentine’s first schoolhouse.
The Bells also set up and ran the area’s first phone system, with Boyd’s Great-Aunt Fannie wrangling the switchboard.
The West Texas desert was Boyd’s muse since boyhood, and after his countless escapades in far-flung locales, he invariably returned to Valentine to regenerate and create. Eventually, he would park his Ford pickup and Mercedes-Benz sedan there for good.
“A lot of people think I spend all my time at art openings and red-carpet affairs,” Elder said in 2016, “but I spend a lot of my time on the top of mountains, just looking around, where there’s no distractions, no telephone poles, no trains, no people, no cell phone service.”
He was born Harold Boyd Elder at Southwestern General Hospital in El Paso on Jan. 12, 1944, to Hal Elder of Bogota, Texas, and Billye Lee Bell Elder of Valentine.
Hal was an artist, leather worker, car collector and mechanic, tennis player, wanna-be golfer, and actor (the banjo-picking professional gong-ee on “The Gong Show” in the late ’70s). Billye had been a public-school special education and physical education teacher with the El Paso Independent School District for 38 years when she retired.
Boyd’s brothers Kenneth Mack Elder and Howard Stanton Elder were born at the same hospital on Sept. 13, 1946, and Sept. 1, 1951, respectively (Mack lived in Ruidoso, New Mexico for many years but now resides on the family’s land in Valentine; Howard died Dec. 16, 2017).
Boyd once described himself as an artistic child, “cursed with the blessing” of a vivid imagination. He grew up in El P, but he and his brothers spent as much time as they could in Valentine on the Bell family ranch, including many weekends and holidays and every summer.
Howard L. Bell Jr. would wrangle the three Elder brothers when they visited – as best he could. Even then, Boyd was the wildest of the bunch.
“When we were boys, we called him ‘Uncle Buck,’” Mack said. “Uncle Buck would point a finger at Boyd and say, ‘Give THAT one a cannonball and he’ll have it torn up before noon!’”
Elder attended and studied art at El Paso’s Burges High School, then played hooky for a few months in his junior year on a road trip with friends to Louisiana. Upon returning, he was sent to El Paso Tech (“Where all the kids who got thrown out of all the other high schools went,” Mack said).
Outside the classroom, Elder studied at the El Paso Museum of Art with noted local artists including Jan Herring and Wiltz Harrison. He also continued experimenting with other non-classical mediums and techniques, including pin-striping hot rods and motorcycles belonging to friends on the local gearhead scene (among them Billy Gibbons, the future Rev. Billy F. Gibbons of ZZ Top).
High school hijinks notwithstanding, Elder won numerous art awards, then a partial scholarship from the Texas Art Association. In 1963 he was accepted at both ArtCenter Los Angeles and the Disney-affiliated Chouinard Art Institute in downtown L.A. (Chouinard later merged with California Institute of the Arts, located in Valencia about 35 miles north of Hollywood.)
“When I went to L.A. … to pick up my scholarship papers at ArtCenter, they told me I couldn’t wear shorts, I had to get a haircut,” Elder said in 2017. “So, I said, ‘Where’s my portfolio?’ And they handed it to me. I took the scholarship papers, tore them up, threw them on the desk, and walked away. I went to Chouinard.”
On full-tuition scholarships at Chouinard, Elder studied with co-founder Robert Graham and Phil Lieder on the way to graduation with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1968.
While at Chouinard, Elder earned the admiration and respect of peers on the exploding 1960s California-Texas art and rock scenes, among them Ed Ruscha, Kenny Price, Larry Bell, Billy Al Bengston, Craig Koffman, and Doug Wheeler.
In those heady years, Elder’s friends and supporters in Hollywood-Laurel Canyon-Venice-Topanga-Malibu also included fellow Texans Bobby Fuller (who helped Elder build his first studio in L.A.; Elder was convinced his patron’s death in 1966 was murder), Joe Ely, Terry Allen, and Don Henley, as well as Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Glenn Frey, Neil Young, “Mama” Cass Elliot, Henry Diltz, Gary Burden, Ron Jacobs, Dewey Bunnell, Darryl Hannah, Dr. Marvin Kolpock, Russ Kunkel, Kay Lenz, Jan-Michael Vincent, Elliott Roberts, Stephen Stills, and Ron Stone.
At Chouinard, Elder met kindred spirit Rick Griffin and Luann Darling Finlayson, who was then Assistant to the Dean. After he graduated, Boyd and Luann moved back to Texas, where they lived in a studio in a converted water tank on Idalia Street in El Paso.
The tank was once artist and mentor Wiltz Harrison’s studio; he rented it to the Elders, who welcomed their first daughter Flaunn on Oct. 25, 1968 (her Godmother is Joni Mitchell).
The Elders moved to Valentine; Luann gave birth to Shaula in nearby Marfa on June 10, 1971 (her Godmother is Sandy Sussman, one of her dad’s Chouinard contemporaries). In 1979, Boyd and Luann eventually moved to Kona, Hawaii, where their contentious relationship ended in 1981.
They shared custody of the girls, who grew up with their mother in Hawaii and visited their father on the Mainland each summer for road trips and adventures. In turn, he’d visit the Big Island each year to escape the bitter cold of West Texas winters.
‘American Fetish – RIP’ Inspiration
Just before Christmas 1971, “Rick Griffin sent me a present packed in an apple crate and lettered ‘To Boyd’ in Olde English, and inside was the breastbone of a Thanksgiving turkey he’d scalloped and pinstriped,” Elder told me in 1978.
“This inspired the painted skull series used on (the) Eagles album covers,” he wrote in a note to mutual musician friend Randy Nauert just a few years ago.
Elder also drew inspiration from a Native American ceremony he’d studied.
“I had (also) done a lot of research into how the Indians painted buffalo skulls for the ceremony, where they had black and red dots symbolizing hailstones,” he said in March 2017. “They pierced their backs and dragged the (painted) buffalo skull for the Sun Dance ceremony.”
With animal skulls given to him by local rancher friends, Elder began experimenting with airbrush painting, pin-striping, and adding beads, feathers, and other symbolic adornments.
The ‘El Chingadero’ Show
Just four months after receiving Griffin’s gift, Elder unveiled his first “American Fetish – RIP” pieces at the infamous “El Chingadero” art exhibit in Venice, California, in April 1972.
Griffin created a now very rare event poster depicting Elder, his amigo loco, “El Indio Blanco de Texas” (“The White Indian of Texas”), behind the wheel of his Ford pickup truck as he roared across the Continental Divide from Valentine to Venice to put on the “Chingadero Show.”
At the gallery’s opening reception that Easter Sunday, April 2, staged with the help of Elder’s friend Gary Burden, Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Randy Meisner, and Bernie Leadon performed together for the first time as Eagles in public.
They played acoustic guitars and sang songs from their not-yet-released debut album, surrounded by other friends including Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, “Mama” Cass Elliott, Ned Doheny, David Geffen, Henry Diltz, who shot stills and Super-8 film at the event, and Joel Bernstein, who also shot stills.
Dubbed “The Best Rock Party Ever” by the Village Voice in New York City, the “Chingadero Show” was the most historic of the more than 40 art exhibits Elder staged coast to coast during his career (his first in L.A. was “Newcomers 1967”).
The Great Artlaw Garage-Studio Conflagration
Elder suffered a huge setback personally and artistically on May 31, 1973, when a mysterious fire destroyed the Bell Motor Company garage and store in Valentine, an authorized Ford repair shop run for decades by Howard Bell Sr. and Howard Bell Jr.
The garage housed many Bell and Elder family artifacts including a homemade biplane and a Maserati 3500 Superleggera the family was restoring. The garage was also where Boyd kept nearly all his artwork to date.
Fueled by more than 60 years of oil, gas and solvents soaked into the garage’s concrete slab floor, it all went up in a spectacular blaze.
“It could have been an electrical short…arson…a chemical explosion,” Elder said in 2016. “Huge loss.” Mack wasn’t there but remains convinced to this day his older brother was somehow responsible.
From those ashes, Boyd rose Phoenix-style. In the next couple of years, with his photo on the back cover of an Eagles album (“Desperado”) and his “American Fetish – RIP” skull art on the front covers of two more, his future looked more incandescent than ever.
But as Elder told Texas Monthly writer Sterry Butcher in early 2018: “I’m a fine artist, not a commercial artist…Everyone wants a painted skull, and I don’t do that anymore. That was a study in desperation in one of the most insecure times of my life.”
Often imitated but never duplicated, Elder’s “American Fetish – RIP” creations are widely recognized as symbols of the Southwestern art-rock continuum, but their notoriety also overshadowed his other creations for the rest of his life.
And while rock ’n’ roll accolades were great – they opened many doors (he could hustle his way backstage anywhere, anytime), led to lasting friendships, fueled his chosen rock ’n’ roll hipster-cowboy lifestyle – they did not satisfy Elder’s tandem quest for recognition and respect as a fine artist.
He considered the “American Fetish – RIP” pieces valid fine art but thought that because a couple of them appeared on album covers, the series wasn’t taken seriously in the fine art world.
He tried to counter that perception with a burst of adorned skulls mounted on painted canvas backgrounds, to drive home the relationship between his skull art and contemporary fine art.
“After the Eagles covers, I wanted to symbolize that the painted skull is a genre, so I married the painted skull with the canvas, and it became fine art,” Elder said in 2018. “There was a whole series of those, including ‘Murderer,’ ‘Lone Star Sunrise’ and ‘Y6 Sunrise.’”
The canvas backgrounds were mysteriously lost en route to an art exhibit in Brazil in the ’90s, but the skulls miraculously found their way back to Elder just a few years ago – another incredible but true story.
And there was a happy ending for “Y6 Sunrise.” The West Texas Hereford bull skull was purchased in 2017 by Jensen Ackles, co-star of the “Supernatural” TV series and collector of Texas art, and his wife Danneel, for display in their home near Austin.
Before Elder died, he was negotiating a deal with another noted Texas art collector who wanted to purchase “Murderer.”
“You know I’m a fine artist,” Elder said in 2017. “My studio burns, and what do I do? Make album covers. And there are millions of them out there. But my work is still not in the Guggenheim, or MOMA, or LACMA. It’s kind of weird to put it there, but at the same time it has that kind of validity, because of the symbolism and the way it relates to all these other people who’d never know about it if they didn’t own an album cover.”
Marfa Mayhem with ‘The Most Famous Artist You Never Heard Of’
Long before he died, Elder’s legend loomed large among his mentors, peers and friends, and younger fans attuned to the rich history of the Texas-California-Colorado-Hawaii art and music scenes of the ’60s and ’70s.
Boyd Elder may not have coined the term “artlaw,” which he used to describe himself in this writer’s first interviews with him in 1978, but he certainly defined it.
In the last few decades, Elder had become an instigator and icon on the celebrated contemporary art scene in Marfa, 34 miles south of Valentine on U.S. 90. The desert town (population 1,981 in the 2010 Census) is famed for the mysterious Marfa Lights and as the location for the movie “Giant” starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean in 1955.
Elder and renowned minimalist artist-designer-writer Donald Judd were friends and confidants in Marfa in the early 1970s, when Judd established the Chinati Foundation there, until Judd’s death in February 1994.
“(Friend) Larry Bell called me and said, ‘You’re going to have a new neighbor, Donald Judd,’” Elder said in 2016. “Donald called me either that day or the next and said, ‘Come on over.’ The women cooked. Don and I drank and talked about sleazy art dealers and museums.”
As a stoker of Judd’s artistic flame in the community, Elder most recently created a skull-art T-shirt design for Marfa Public Radio, where he was a semi-regular drop-in guest.
Sometimes he’d deliver the weather report on the air calling in from Valentine or from the Prada Marfa art installation on U.S. 90 a mile and a half north of his roadside studio.
Elder earned notoriety on the international contemporary art scene as Prada Marfa’s official
site representative and guardian since its opening on Oct. 1, 2005, a role he found simultaneously hilarious and maddening. He told Morley Safer all about it for a “CBS 60 Minutes” segment that aired April 12, 2013.
“Boyd was all over, backstage in Austin (as) frequently as I ever was,” said Joe Nick Patoski, noted Texas music journalist, author, historian, film producer, and host of the “Texas Music Hour of Power” Saturdays on Marfa Public Radio.
“But you had to go see him in Valentine, you had to see him work Marfa – that, to me, was Boyd,” Patoski said. “He owned that area. You can’t make s**t up like doing cocaine with a drug lord in the Ojinaga jail (60 miles south of Marfa, just over the Mexican border). That doesn’t exist anywhere else. But that was part of Boyd’s world.”
Yet, as writer Sterry Butcher put it in her February 2018 Texas Monthly profile, published just after his 74th birthday, Boyd Elder may have sold more art than Picasso, but he was still “the most famous artist you never heard of.”
‘Artlaw: Boyd Elder’
For more than a year, Elder had been developing a career-spanning coffee-table art book and accompanying video documentary, collaborating with longtime journalist friend and biographer Stephen K. Peeples and co-writing/creative team Corey “Duncan” Stewart and Tamara Deike.
Elder had recently rounded up noted contemporary art critic and “Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy” author Dave Hickey to write the foreword and Patoski and Thornton to contribute essays.
The working title: “Artlaw: Boyd Elder – The Greatest Artist You’ve Never Heard Of.”
“I’ve always been more interested in what’s ahead than what’s in the rear-view, and that’s still true,” Elder said in the book proposal, completed three weeks before he died. “But my supporters have been after me for decades to put together a cross-section of my past works and get these wild tales told. Now’s the time.”
The collaborators were planning to meet in Valentine the week of Oct. 15 to work on further interviews and image preparation. His death put the project on hold for a few years.
With the help of Elder’s family, the “Artlaw: Boyd Elder” will be completed in 2022 as the ultimate homage to the man and his art.
Elder was preceded in death by his father Hal Elder (March 22, 1914-Feb. 3, 2003), mother Billye Lee Bell Elder (April 12, 1919-Jan. 15, 2015) and youngest brother Howard Stanton Elder (Sept. 1, 1951-Dec. 16, 2017).
He is survived by middle brother Kenneth Mack Elder of Ruidoso, New Mexico and Valentine and Mack’s son Soren Thompson of Ruidoso; eldest daughter Flaunn Elder Jamieson, her husband Ben Jamieson and their sons Lakoda Kai Jamieson and Rhyder Nalu Jamieson of Kona, Hawaii; and Shaula Elder of Austin. He is also survived by his faithful black Labrador Retriever, Sombra de la Muerta (Shadow of Death).
Boyd Elder’s Big AMF – Artlaw Life Celebration Blowouts
“There will be no public service, no churchy BS – that’s not my dad,” Shaula Elder said.
“My sister (Flaunn) and I read Dad’s will, and he wanted to be cremated,” Shaula said. “He wanted his ashes to be scattered all over the f***ing world, wherever all the people who loved him lived. That’s just going to be everywhere. He was stardust when he was alive and now he’s stardust forever.”
Elder’s daughters plan to throw a few major celebrations of his artlaw life.
“The way we want to do them is huge,” Shaula said. “We want to pull off a huge art show, a big-ass blowout in Marfa, a party at Justine’s in Austin, and another blowout in L.A. We’re going to do all the things our dad loved – drink some fine red wine, eat fine food, smoke Cuban cigars, whatever.”
[Updated] The first celebration took over The Capri in Marfa on Saturday, Nov. 3, from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. on the venue side. Coincidentally, but perfectly, the Capri’s exhibit side featured artworks commemorating “El Dia de Los Muertos,” the Mexican celebration for departed loved ones.
A second celebration rocked Justine’s Brasserie in Austin on Feb. 5, just after what would have been Elder’s 75th birthday on Jan. 12. See that recap here.
Future “NO AMF Tour” events will coincide with the publishing of “Artlaw: Boyd Elder.”
“So, tell everybody to start resting up and get ready because we’re going to party hard,” Shaula said. “And it’s gonna be like a f**king freight train high-ballin’ up the line from the south side of heaven.”
– By Stephen K. Peeples, with much-appreciated assistance from Flaunn Elder-Jamieson, Shaula Elder, Mack Elder, John M. Thornton, Joe Ely, Joe Nick Patoski, Tamara Deike and Corey “Duncan” Stewart.