Roy Williams Harrison was born November 16, 1913 in Welch, Oklahoma. His father, Roy Champ Harrison, was born in 1889 in Richland, Missouri. His mother, Lois Etta Williams, was born in 1894 in Richland, Missouri. His parents married on September 7, 1912 and lived on a farm near Vinita, in Craig County, Oklahoma. His parents had three children, Roy (b. 1913), Albert (b. 1916), and Earl (b. 1919). His father was a general farmer and cattle rancher.
The maternal grandparents, Andrew and Lily Williams, lived on a nearby farm in Vinita, OK, where the three brothers spent a significant portion of their childhood.
The Harrison brothers grew up on the family farm and attended local public schools.
In 1928 at the age of fourteen Roy Harrison left home to live with relatives in Kansas, where he could attend the high school in Coffeyville, KS, which is just across the state line, thirty miles north from the family farm.
In June 1930 at the age of seventeen Roy Harrison completed the eleventh grade, after which he entered the work force. Hard times came with the Great Depression, but he was determined to become an artist. He was most inspired by the example of the Western artist Charles M. Russell (1864-1926).
In 1932 his parents divorced. His father moved to Flint, Michigan.
In 1933 Roy Harrison moved to Kansas City, Missouri, to look for work as a newspaper artist. There he met Marvin Townsend, a talented student at the Kansas City Art Institute, who became his good friend. Marvin Townsend was born on July 2, 1915 in K.C., MO. He went on to become a popular gag cartoonist with work published in slick magazines, religious journals, newspapers, children's books, as well as pulp magazines, such as Amazing Stories and Argosy. He died at the age of eighty-four on November 26, 1999. At that same time several artists from the Kansas City Art Institute, such as Monty Crews, Robert G. Harris, Emery Clarke, and Richard Lyon headed off to New York City to seek their fortunes as freelance illustrators.
In 1936 Roy Harrison moved to New York City to study at the Grand Central School of Art. He lived at the YMCA Sloane House at 356 West 34th Street in Manhattan. This mammoth fourteen-story building was the largest such residence in the U.S. It first opened on January 1, 1930, and provided temporary housing for thousands of young male visitors to NYC.
While studying art in NYC Roy Harrison met Nick Eggenhofer, the foremost pen and ink artist of Western pulps. Nick Eggenhofer sincerely loved the Old West, although he was a German immigrant with no first hand experience of ranch life. He was delighted to meet a young artist who was raised on an Oklahoma cattle ranch. Nick introduced Roy to several art editors to help sell his first illustrations to Ace Magazines. Despite these few sales of pen and ink illustrations to Western pulps, he still depended on money from his mother to make ends meet. After two years of study he returned to Oklahoma and tried to start a local career as a professional illustrator.
In July of 1938 he designed a cover illustration for Hoofs & Horns, a trade publication for cattleman and rodeo fans, produced by Ethel "Ma" Hopkins in Tucson, Arizona. In partial payment he arranged for the publisher to send a year's subscription to Nick Eggenhofer, who was delighted with the magazine's wealth of authentic Cowboy reference material.
In August of 1938 he returned to NYC. He was joined on this adventure by his pal from Kansas City, Marvin Townsend. They stayed at the same giant YMCA building on West 34th. On August 25, 1938 he wrote home to his mother, "Ole New York hasn't changed much. Everybody trying to beat the other fellow out of some money."
He designed business stationary with an Old West stagecoach delivering mail to announce, "Roy Harrison - Cowboy Illustrator."
On September 4, 1938 he wrote home to report the delivery of his first illustration to Thrilling Publications. "Well I took it down and he liked it just fine. Although he didn't have any more work for me then, he said to drop around next week and he'd probably have something for me. I kinda believe he'll just about give me enough work to keep me going. Of course we can't tell yet. I've been around to nearly all the other places without much success. I had a talk with a fellow who took over Mr. Collier's place at [Ace] Magazine Publishers. Later on maybe I can do some work for him. I still have about three places to go. I'll get around to them next week. I'm not sure just what happened with my money, but I only have ten dollars left. We pay our rent on Saturdays, so I have my rent paid for another week. The guy [at Thrilling] will probably pay me for the drawing this week. He said for me to send him a bill, which I did on Friday. I don't believe I can live on less than ten dollars a week, but by being real close, that ought to do me. So maybe you'll have to send me a little occasionally for a while. I think I'll try to stay on here in New York. Things look pretty good and with a little luck I'm liable to get started pretty good one of these here days."
In 1938 he began to notice a worrisome eye condition, which caused blindness in small areas of his field of vision. The medical condition remianed undiagnosed, but the symptoms suggested Serpiginous Choroiditis. Although it is a nightmare for an artist to go blind, he could still see well enough to work. His vision was not distorted and he was able to compensate for the area of lost sight by simply adjusting his viewpoint. Perhaps the hardest part was his struggle to pay for visits to the eye doctor.
On November 4, 1938 he wrote to his mother, "Until yesterday I was sorta blue. Didn't have any work. Gosh, I thought perhaps I'd flumped out all of a sudden., Two consecutive weeks now Thrilling [Publications] has failed me. If she doesn't have something for me next Tuesday I'm going to call her aside and have a heart-to-heart talk with her. Try to find out what's wrong! Yesterday things picked up some. So now I'm happy, sort of. I got a single [page] and double [page Illustration] from Winford [Blue-Ribbon Publications], which by the way means this week is my poorest since I been started. Fifteen dollars. Guess I was going too strong! Also yesterday I got a seventy-five dollar check from Thrilling [Publications], and besides all that I went to the eye doctor. Yes, yesterday was an eventful day for me. I went to the Health Bureau and they told me a good eye doctor to go to. Well, I went, and darned if he didn't sock me for thirteen bucks! I never had such a thorough examination in my life though. They had me running around there naked for about four hours!!!! He never told me much. Said come back in two weeks. He said however that he didn't think I had much to worry about, though he thought maybe I ought to take some injections. That some of those lesions in my eyes were still active. I don't know what to do. If I keep going to the doctor he's going to charge the hell outta me, seems like. On the other hand, feel I ought to have something done, as long as he says he can help my eyes and keep'em from getting any worse. What should I do? I guess I can make enough to live on and still pay the doctor. I wouldn't be able to save any money though. Aside from being a little hard of hearing in one ear, and my eyes, he said I was a pretty good man. Blood pressure, heart, lungs, and so on! Yes mommy, you better send my overcoat on up. If I continue going to the doctor I won't have enough money to buy me one. I reckon the old one can see me through another winter, huh? We're still having beautiful weather. A little cool in mornings, but gets real warm up in the day. Well, its noon and I gotta get out and let the chamber maid clean up, so I'll mail this, with love to all. Your son, Roy."
To support himself he sold pen and ink story illustrations to Western pulp magazines. His work appeared in Western Aces, Western Trails, Red Seal Western, Super Western, Famous Western, Double-Action Western, and Blue Ribbon Western.
His signature was often accompanied by a "Rocking H," which is an historic cattle brand that his father used on the family ranch.
He worked exclusively in pen and ink and only produced illustrations for Western pulp magazines. No other work by the artist was published outside of this unusually narrow field.
Two other pulp artists, Harold Dow Bugbee and Pete Martinez, also happened to work in this same narrow field. They both specialized in pen and ink drawings of the Old West. Both artists happened to live in the Southwest throughout their working careers. Bugbee lived in Taos, New Mexico, and Martinez lived in Tucson, Arizona. Genuine Old Western lifestyles gave their work an authentic flavor. Instead of illustrating assigned fictional scenes, both artists were free to sketch any typically-Western scene. Their finished work was mailed to NYC art editors, who needed incidental spot illustrations to fill blank spaces in the layouts of their Western pulp magazines. Roy Harrison was a third artist working in this same tiny market.
Most of his drawings were published by three low-paying pulp magazine publishers, Ace Magazines, Thrilling, and Blue Ribbon Publications, where the going rate for one pen and ink story illustration was five dollars. He sold enough work to barely survive in NYC during the Great Depression. By the summer of 1940 he had saved enough to buy an automobile for his return trip to Oklahoma, where he was greeted as a triumphant local hero.
He lived in Vinita, OK, with his maternal grandfather Andrew Williams (born in 1873). The artist continued to draw Western "spot" illustrations and mail them to his customary editors in the NYC pulp magazine industry.
In 1942 during WWII he made every effort to enlist in military service but his eye condition made him unfit. He also had only partial hearing in one ear as a result of a complicated birth.
On January 25, 1944 he received an encouraging letter from Nick Eggenhofer, which included the statement. "Keep up the good work and you'll get there. This game is not a bed of roses by a long shot, but it has its compensations. It's like a disease. It's in the blood and you can't get rid of it."
On September 27, 1945 he married Martha "Mattie" Madeline Epperson. She was born 1919 in Big Cabin, which is six miles southwest from Vinita in Craig County, OK. Her parents were J. O. and Mary Epperson.
On August 1, 1946 his daughter, Patricia Ellen Harrison, was born.
The post-war period brought new trends in American popular culture. A growing fascination with comic books distracted many readers from buying pulp magazines. As the industry floundered, many pulp artists looked a new source of income.
Bugbee and Martinez were both celebrated in their communities as famous "Cowboy Artists." Artworks by Bugbee and Martinez are still treasured by Western art collectors. Although Harrison's career was oddly parallel to theirs it is curious that no comparable art market developed after his few years as a pulp artist. His last original drawing was published in 1945. Although his work continued to appear in later issues of pulps, they were only re-printed and cropped versions of works that had been previously published. He never received further payments for these ongoing uses.
In 1948 the Harrison family moved to Anchorage, Alaska, where the artist's brother Albert worked as an accountant, and Earl worked in home construction and house painting.
Although he earned his income as a house painter, Roy Harrison continued to create art for his own pleasure for the rest of his life. He worked in pen and ink, watercolor, and oil paint. His subjects included Alaskan animals and landscapes.
According to the artist's daughter, "Roy wa a very sensitive man. Although he was a hard worker, he always had time for his family. He was a lover of all animals, but he never let me have a rattle snake, which I really wanted. Hunting and fishing was common place in Alaska. We ate more moose than beef in those years. I never once heard him complain about the hardships of his illness. My Grandmother always said of him, 'if Roy didn't have someone to talk to, he'd just tal to a fence post.' He was the kind of guy that liked everyone he met and never spoke ill of those he knew."
In 1959 the artist became seriously ill and moved to Chico, California, for a brief period and then to Tulsa, Oklahoma, for long term medical treatment.
After a period of illness, Roy Harrison died at the age of forty-seven in Tulsa, Oklahoma on October 23, 1961.
© David Saunders 2013