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Rankin as a Canvas

Artist Matt Tumlinson interprets the state’s culture in murals around a West Texas town

Matt Tumlinson wanted to create a painting that stretched across an entire building, so when the opportunity arose to splash one on the side of a restaurant in tiny Rankin, he headed west, paintbrushes in tow.

“I was thinking if it turns out bad, very few people will see it in Rankin,” the San Antonio-based artist said.

The 8-foot letters that spell out the town’s name, in a style reminiscent of what you’d find on a cowboy’s belt buckle, turned out pretty good, in fact. And since that 60-foot mural went up in 2015, Tumlinson has painted seven more in the West Texas oil town, population about 850.

“With murals, it’s really tough to get permission or access to a wall and even tougher to get access without stipulations on it,” Tumlinson said. “I only wanted to do one if I could paint something I wanted to paint, and Rankin’s been really good about ‘I’ve got a wall you can paint.’ ”

Tumlinson grew up in Early. After graduating from Texas Tech University, he worked briefly as a history teacher but disliked it. When he and his wife, Allison, moved to Nantucket, Massachusetts, he sold his first painting—a watercolor map. In 2013 they moved back to Texas, where he worked as a guide on the San Antonio Riverwalk while trying to kickstart his art career.

A palette of spray paint.

Erich Schlegel

Tumlinson’s main business is in “brass canvas” paintings, made on groups of spent bullet casings collected from his uncle’s gun range. He also works in oil, painting his view of Texas’ quickly changing rural landscapes and drawing influence from Texas singer-songwriters.

“People have this idea that Texas is all boots and cowboys and open range,” Tumlinson said. “I just feel like being an eighth-generation Texan, if somebody’s going to tell the accurate story of what Texas is today, why not me?”

Rankin, 55 miles south of Midland, didn’t offer up its downtown as a canvas randomly. Tumlinson’s sister teaches at Rankin High School; his brother-in-law coaches the Red Devils, the school’s six-man football team. A local restaurant owner thought a mural would liven things up (which it did). Tumlinson’s sister mentioned that her brother was an artist looking for a place to paint a mural, and an invitation was extended. The mural was Tumlinson’s first.

Life imitates art as Matt Tumlinson grabs a selfie in front of his modern take on a Lonesome Dove scene.

Erich Schlegel

Soon, locals suggested he paint the side of the city’s water tower. The structure looked rickety to Tumlinson, so instead he painted a scene from Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove on the side of a building owned by the mayor. The mural shows characters Gus and Woodrow riding into San Antonio, marveling at how the city has changed. “It’s all growed up,” Gus says in the TV miniseries.

In Tumlinson’s version of the scene, the cowboys are holding a selfie stick. He painted it in a single night, using his pickup truck’s headlights to illuminate the wall.

“In a world where all the spaces are filled in on a map, I wonder what happened to the guys like that,” Tumlinson says of the image. “I’m trying to put that concept of what it is to be Texan into a modern context.”

Another mural sprouted on the wall of an abandoned gas station along U.S. 67 a few blocks away. Tumlinson checked tax records to find out who owned the building and then contacted the company to get permission. The CEO granted approval, and Tumlinson illustrated a saintly looking Willie Nelson, halo overhead and joint in hand. Within a week, Tumlinson got a call. He’d received permission from the wrong building owner, and the true owner wanted the artwork removed. Tumlinson suggested a compromise—he’d erase the joint if the rest could stay.

It did.

A John Wayne mural adorns the other side of that gas station, alongside a graph marked “stupidity” on one axis and “difficulty in life” on the other, a nod to a quote often incorrectly attributed to Wayne: “Life is hard; it’s even harder when you’re stupid.”

Web Extra: “Somehow, Willie Nelson seems to be loved by just about everybody, Tumlinson says. “I figure if you can be bring together such a wide variety of people, you must be doing something right. I think we would all be in a lot better shape if we asked ourselves, ‘What would Willie do?’ ”

Erich Schlegel

Tumlinson painted other murals, too: a pair of oil field workers on one wall, another Rankin sign on another and a state trooper ticketing a kid riding a Big Wheel on a pink cinder block building. (That one was modeled after his uncle but coincidentally looked like a local trooper at the time. The trooper took it in stride, according to Tumlinson.)

The artist’s most popular work decorates a metal tank near the railroad tracks. In it, actor Matthew McConaughey holds a can of spray paint next to the words, “You’d be a lot cooler if more people thought so,” a twist on the actor’s quote from the Richard Linklater movie Dazed and Confused: “It’d be a lot cooler if you did.”

Tumlinson says the mural of Matthew McConaughey is about being confident in yourself.

Erich Schlegel

Tumlinson tried but never located the tank’s owner to get permission to paint it. He decided to put up the artwork—painted in his studio in downtown San Antonio, then applied to the metal structure—anyway. As he worked in broad daylight, a state trooper stopped to inquire. He asked if Tumlinson had painted the city’s murals, told him McConaughey looked great, then drove away.

Since painting the Rankin murals, Tumlinson has expanded his reach—part of a long-term goal to paint his way across the state. In San Antonio his Puro San Antonio mural is filled with nods to the local culture. One dubbed King George depicts country music singer George Strait in royal garb, and a third features a woman dressed as Davy Crockett swinging a gun.

Tumlinson likes painting murals because anybody can see them. “It’s the closest thing an artist gets to being on a stage,” he said. “It’s more communal.”

Spray-painting in windblown West Texas can be tricky.

Erich Schlegel

The Rankin community, apparently, approves. None have been vandalized.

“You see people all the time taking pictures,” said Brandon Brown, the mayor. “I don’t think we’re a destination yet, but I think the murals have sparked a little bit of new life in Rankin.”

Pam LeBlanc, a Texas-based adventure journalist and former staff writer at the Austin American-Statesman, has made a hobby of riding her bicycle around Austin admiring and photographing murals. Her book, My Stories, All True: J. David Bamberger on Life as an Entrepreneur and Conservationist, was published in September.