When you see Robert Nipp atop one of his favorite horses, Chance, with a backdrop of roiling black clouds over his sprawling horse ranch you might think they are in another century. If you squint really hard and put a mental sepia screen over the vista - it's 1820.
Nipp's full, snow-white beard is just a shade lighter than Chance's flaxen mane. And his boots, jacket, saddle, leather gloves and buckskin hat are vintage throwbacks to a simpler time when the Iron Horse rocked the rails and real horses were a mainstay.
Modern cowboy stuck in real time
While this multi-talented, artistic, modern cowboy wishes he lived back then, in reality he's stuck in the 3rd millennium, much to his chagrin. But at least he lives on a Century Farm. It's Blue Lake Ranch in the heart of Mt. Juliet on Central Pike.
"I'm sorta a throwback from another era," Nipp said, while ensconced in his art studio on the second floor of his custom-made, Ponderosa retreat. "I'd be really happy100-plus years ago out West."
And yes, he did design his home based on intense research of the Ponderosa homestead featured on the hit television series "Bonanza" that ran from 1959 to 1973.
Only Nipp would do something so outside the box. But for those who know this 74 year old, it certainly wasn't a stretch.
Love of past developed early
Nipp grew up in the Nashville bedroom community of Donelson. And while most think of this little city as suburbia, Nipp did have the vantage of living on a farm there. He always wanted to own a horse, just like Roy Rogers.
"It took me until I was 49 before that happened," he said. "It was a Rocky Mountain horse, with a laid back nature. Thank goodness."
Since then, he's traveled to Colorado, Utah, Arizona and other places out West and mostly took in the sights on top of a horse. But it was a mule when he toured the Continental Divide some 13,000 feet high. However, he didn't just take mental snapshots of the vast terrain, there's always a camera on his person.
"I photograph the landscapes," he said.
Artist lives through his paintings
The reason is because Nipp is a renowned artist, who specializes in Western art painted in the "realism" genre.
It's fitting for a guy who is in awe of the Western frontier era and his way of "living" back then is through - his art.
One look at his originals, painstakingly brushed on canvas reveal his love of Native Americans, the Western vista and wildlife. He likes to paint in groups of works, or series, and some include portfolios such as: Wildlife, Mystic Warriors, Western and Reflection. However, not to be pigeonholed, other series in his vast portfolio include Contemporary Nature Designs, Commissioned Portraits, Illustrations and Limited Edition Prints.
He has created literally hundreds of paintings over the past 40 years. His interest in art, especially wildlife, spans these four decades. He studied at Ringling School of Art in Sarasota, Florida and graduated from the Memphis Art Academy. Over the years his originals and limited edition prints have been sold and exhibited nationally.
He's very humble when he nods and says, "yep," and confirms he's won numerous awards and honors for both his wildlife paintings and commercial art productions.
Not a starving artist
Yes, commercial art. This was his bread and butter and his major in college. It took many years before he could have the luxury of riding out West and replicating images he's seen in tintype photos.
For three decades, Nipp owned and operated Nova Group Advertising Agency in Nashville.
"Why advertising and commercial art?" he queried himself. "Well, I wanted to eat."
Basically, he explained, it's hard to make a real living being a "fine artist."
He's worked hard in the industry, and before Nova Group he founded Studio 6, in 1968, that was a graphic arts studio with six professionals who worked independently.
He worked really well with one professional and they both started Nova Group. They landed big timers back in that day, like WSM and Opryland. It was great fun, and he created many of the characters that roamed the then-popular theme park.
"Let's see," he remembered. "There was Delilah Dulcimer and Johnny Guitar and so many."
He also created those intricate maps for theme parks, the kinds that have miniature landmarks to follow. Along with Opryland, there were Beech Bend Park and even Gatlinburg. Genesco and Northern Telecom were also his accounts.
He then branched out to Gatlinburg Place, which included one of the first IMAX theatres, where he designed animated shows with computerized 3-D images.
He segued during this prolific career mode to what he does these days. Their group included painting limited edition prints of wildlife around 1972 and eventually sold one series, "Nature of Tennessee" to Third National Bank.
This morphed to founding Graystone Press (to print the editions) and several art galleries he and his wife Linda owned in Brentwood. The success continued to Raintree Graphics.
And we should mention, along the way he began teaching advertising and commercial art at David Lipscomb College.
Blue Lake is an artist's retreat
Blue Lake Ranch came about when Linda inherited the family farm on Central Pike in 1991. They built the ranch in 1992 on the beautiful property where they now enjoy boarding horses and trail raiding.
"It's a sixth-generation family farm," he said.
It was originally 257 acres, but they sold some land - except the original homestead acreage - which is now Wright Farms Subdivision. They are peaceful and exclusive on 33 acres.
In 2003 this artist came up with the idea to build a replica of the Ponderosa. It took him two years, thankfully with his wife's "full support." He trucked in logs from Colorado and installed beautiful stained glass.
Laid back days and brush strokes
Nipp is now officially retired, but he does teach at Nossi College of Art. He's into Buckskinning. It's a camping group with a pre-1840's twist. The excursions are replete with muzzleloaders, bows and arrows and tomahawks. It's a great fit for one who admits he was born way too late.
"We rendezvous near St. Louis," he said. "We dress like the fur traders and camp in tepees. I've done this in Colorado, Utah and Indiana."
And, of course, he takes pictures of his adventures as "background" for his paintings that share a lot of the mysticism.
"There's more than a picture," he explained. "I try to tell a story, have a point and time about what happened back then. I try to make it authentic."
"Spirit of Thunder," and "War Pony" showcase his love of retro west. His painting "Sun Warrior" has a special shield he took a picture of during his many visits to the Native American Museum in Washington.
Nipp was commissioned to produce a series of wildlife prints for Safari World's Adventure Travel, which is an international hunting and fishing outfitter.
"I got to go to Central and South America," he said.
There he researched his subjects and settings. He's also painted for Friends of Radnor Lake, which raised over $50,000 in print sales to establish Tennessee's first Natural Wildlife area.
"I use a glazing technique which has me waiting long hours for the painting to dry, so I can put on another layer," he said.
It takes about 200 hours to complete a painting. His paintings grace galleries in Gatlinburg and Liepers Fork, among other places. He recently was commissioned to paint a portrait of the late founder of Bay's Southern Bread, Inc. in Lebanon.
"I'm also working on a commission painting for a lady from Franklin," he said.
It's a prize Black Angus bull.
These days, it's no deadlines, no real pressure related to his life's work. He said his biggest job is mowing the ranch.
"My favorite painting is my next one," he quipped.
However, he does admit a painting of his wife in full, authentic Indian garb has a special place in his heart.
"I'm happy, very happy," he said softly. "I do what I want to do, I can get up late and paint. And I cut a lot of grass here."
To order Nipp's prints and learn more about his offerings go to robertnipp.com
Writer Laurie Everett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.