Old West Miniatures of Len McCann come to the Black Hills!

by Larry Miller

Len McCann with his horse Blaze.

Len McCann with Blaze.

While Montana artist Len McCann wasn’t raised on a ranch, he hasn’t forgotten riding his first saddle horse on an Oregon ranch when he was five years old.

“The West is what I knew first,” drawls the 80-year McCann, speaking with a strong but subdued voice – sounding like a western character portrayed by Sam Elliott – and equally affable.

The Old West is front and center in the superb collection of nearly three dozen commercial art pieces that McCann has donated to both the Old Fort Meade Museum in Sturgis and the High Plains Western Heritage Center in Spearfish. “My interest in donating this collection of my work is in seeing that it has a home where it will be displayed and cared for,” says McCann. “And I think I’ve found the ideal places.”

Some of the miniatures – created from a magical blend of resin and epoxy – were inspired by old-time and contemporary personalities who left their marks on history. From Robert E. Lee and Crazy Horse to Casey Tibbs, and there’s recognition of rodeo cowgirls of the 1930’s. A bust of General George Patton will grace the Fort Meade Museum, while a cutaway view of a bunk house is now on display in a High Plains Western Heritage Center exhibit.

McCann’s collection of military miniatures, from Robert E. Lee and General Ulysses Grant and a range of others representing military troops, will be featured at the Old Fort Meade Museum. American Indian and Old West miniatures – including rodeo pieces – will be highlighted in the High Plains Western Heritage Center in Spearfish.

Artist Leonard “Len” McCann was born in Burley, Idaho 1939 to Paul and Mabel McCann, but the family soon moved to Butte, Montana where his dad, Paul McCann, worked as a miner. The elder McCann was a World War I veteran and served in the Army’s 1st Cavalry after the war. A generation later, Len McCann enlisted in the Air Force with stints at Keesler Air Force Base at Biloxi, Mississippi, and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson.

“I was a ground control approach radar operator,” he says. Those military experiences – along with his abiding interest in all things western – likely influenced his enthusiasm for Old West Cavalry art. “The desire to honor the service men and women who have given so much in the past and the present gives me the inspiration to depict soldiers of all eras.

“While I was growing up we lived in a lot of places,” says McCann, “from Idaho and Montana to Oregon and Nebraska.”

After the Air Force, he settled in the Denver area. That’s where, in 1961, he and his wife Barbara were married. Len had a variety of jobs from school janitor to three years working for the Coors Brewery in Golden. Using the G.I. Bill, Len enrolled at the Rocky Mountain School of Art in Denver, graduating in 1969 with an emphasis in commercial art – “but I never worked in commercial art.” Instead, he signed on with Bunn Studios in Denver as a “preparator” for a couple of years.

“We had some interesting projects, including the creation of 55 life-sized wax figures for the Country Music Wax Museum, which is housed in the Grand Ole Opry building in Nashville,” he remembers.

For about three and one-half years, McCann worked for the Natural History Museum in Denver. “But I quit the museum in 1975 and have been on my own ever since.” Len McCann became a prolific sculptor, working in a variety of media, and on a variety of topics – but much of it focused on the old west and the military. His sculpting ranges in size from miniature to life-sized. His specialties include military history, equestrian subjects, and miniature one-of-a kind sculptures that combine media and “replicating accoutrement.”

Among the many public and private collections featuring his work is the U.S. Cavalry Museum at Fort Riley, Kansas, which owns and displays several of his bronzes. “It’s really the ultimate compliment to have exhibits at Fort Riley,” McCann said.

In November 1985, McCann’s life-sized bronze of General George Patton was installed and dedicated at the Church of Our Savior Episcopal Church in San Gabriel, California. The ceremony marked the 100th anniversary of Patton’s birth. It stands at the entrance of the church cemetery. Land for the church was given by the Patton family. General Patton is the only member of his family not buried in the cemetery.

While Len McCann’s superb work as an artist is well documented, he’s also recognized as an outstanding instructor. For some 24 years he’s taught in the Adult Education program in Missoula.

McCann and his wife Barbara live in Florence, Montana, a small town about a 15-minute drive south of Missoula. While their daughter Judith lives in Denver, son Phillip is just down the road a ways in Stevensville, Montana.

McCann’s western authenticity was summed up by Old Fort Meade Museum director Randy Bender. “He sounds like a cowboy. He looks like a cowboy. We don’t know a cowboy who wouldn’t want to ride with Len McCann,” Bender said.

The enthusiasm of staff and volunteers at High Plains Western Heritage Center and the Old Fort Meade Museum is palpable. Visitors will find inspiration in both the quality of McCann’s work, as well as for the era and cultures that captured McCann’s own heart and imagination as a boy growing up in the Old West

A Len McCann miniature depicting famous saddle bronc rider and motion picture star Casey Tibbs of Ft. Pierre, SD. Tibbs was well-know for his affinity for the color purple and it’s reflected in this piece with the purple chaps.