George Zupp’s serendipitous career as a working artist and painter began amongst the waterways and animal houses of San Marcos, gravitating to the remote Rio Grande border town of Redford TX and then finally settling into the village of Marathon.
Zupp early on had a knack for selling his artwork. The only student in his masters program regularly selling his work, he had one wall of his studio space dedicated to pieces he was auctioning on eBay.
With themes he says “are like classical country or rock and roll songs,” he claims his art is “the exorcism of his toxic masculinity.” Oil paintings, ink sketches, sculptures, YouTube videos, and even letters he sells to regular collectors are part of Zupp’s repertoire.
Ultimately his greatest influences comes from the folk art genre, Texas regionalism of the 1930’3 and 40’s and artists such as Francis Bacon and Everett Spruce. As a folk artist in search of folk, the Big Bend Region and specifically Redford and Marathon have provided ample subjects. Kelly Pruitt, Enrique Madrid, Simone Swan, Rachel Manera and James Evans are just a few of the artists and intellectuals of the region that are a part of Chicken George’s story.
It started with a magazine article about Simone Swan’s adobe architecture that prompted a road trip to West Texas in search of studio space. Upon locating Ms. Swan, she promptly sent George and his painter friend Sergio to find Enrique Madrid in Redford Texas. George and Sergio had a duel to see who could last longer in the desert. George won.
George remained in large part because of Enrique Madrid and his mother’s old library. Lucia Madrid established a private lending library in 1976 in Redford after retiring from working as a schoolteacher for 25 years. Her library grew to hold over 15,000 books and served the greater community from both sides of the border. As a result of her service, she was inducted into the Texas Woman’s Hall of Fame and received the President’s Volunteer Service Award. In 1999, George Zupp moved into the former library and spent the year living and painting in Redford.
Enrique Madrid grew up surrounded by books and learning. He left only briefly to further his education and serve in the military but spent most of his life on his family’s land in Redford. An avid reader and fierce intellectual, he and wife Ruby were always eager to offer evenings of food, hospitality, and blazing conversation to any curious friend or traveler. It was customary for the students involved in Outward Bound expeditions stationed out of Redford to have their last meal as a group with Enrique and Ruby. The students’ experience in Big Bend came full circle as they shared in the perspectives of one of the border region’s greatest historians.
Zupp quickly settled into the Redford community and life, mostly painting, drinking and enjoying long conversations with Enrique. Zupp’s friend Sergio made a deal with a property owner to move in and fix up an old building in town that used to be a bar, gas staton and convenient store. Another painter friend, Joey, came from the Northwest to try his hand at the desert bohemian life in Redford.
Kelly Pruitt, an established painter, cowboy, self-proclaimed gypsy and Toltec Sorcerer came to live in Redford in 2000. He built and lived in a traditional jacal, parts of which still stand. A jacal is a partially subterranean structure built with sticks woven together in an arch formation, covered and sealed with adobe mud. In later years Zupp adorned Pruitt’s abandoned jacal with sculptures and artwork. Kelly Pruitt was born in Presidio and lived to be over 90. He dug his grave the day before his death at a place known as La Junta, where the Rio Concho enters the Rio Grande. Zupp made a painting about Kelly’s passing, titled “Man digs his own grave.”
But what of the name “Chicken George?” It began with Zupp’s friend Sergio, who originally gave him the nickname. While still living in San Marcos, George was broke and needed to pay some bills. In thinking of a subject he enjoyed painting, the plan was to knock out and sell a bunch of artwork. The subject was chickens. It worked, and he’s been a master painter of chickens ever since. While Sergio intended the name to poke fun at Zupp, George embraced it and it stuck. Being called “chicken,” especially in Redford where he was known as “Gallina,” may be considered insulting, but not to Zupp.
Zupp proposes his art comes from a “Jerry Springer” mentality, bringing humor to depravity and conflict. “I like to make something you would find in a junk or antique store. There’s a mystery to it,” says Zupp. Chicken George’s style could be compared to a Charles Bukowski-like expression: raw, blatantly honest, unashamed. “I don’t identify as the sensitive artist type, just don’t have it in me,” he proclaims. “As a contrarian and smart-ass, I can sense what the unchecked absolutism is in the room.” His style is to stir things up with an irreverence aimed at radicalism in America, without taking sides nor identifying as for or against liberal or conservative.
In 2006 in Marathon, Chicken George temporarily set up studio in a barn owned by the photographer James Evans. South of the railroad tracks on Avenue D some of Zupp’s handiwork remains on a small outbuilding next to Evan’s studio, adorned with sculptures and other artistic embellishments. A sign on the building posted by Zupp currently reads “installation in progress, the Evan’s foundation.”
Eventually Zupp bought land in Marathon across from the Loma Del Chivo Hostel and built a permanent studio and living space, where he currently lives and works. But before finally building and settling in Marathon, Zupp returned to Redford for another couple years, drawn once again by the people, landscape and history of this unique border community.
With some of the same and some new characters around him, Chicken George once again dedicated himself to painting, drinking, and long conversations with Enrique Madrid. One new character settling in Redford at the same time was the artist and sculptress Rachel Manera. Having befriended Zupp when working as a bartender at the Famous Burro in Marathon, she found a place and set up a studio in Redford. Zupp featured Manera in a series of YouTube videos where she took on the persona of “Ruby Lonestart Vixon” to Zupp’s longtime YouTube personality “Chicken George 1236.”
George recently joined in creative collaboration with the newly-formed business Marfa Meats. Specializing in locally sourced meat from West Texas, customers can purchase meat from a meat vending machine adorned with Zupps artwork, located at Cactus Liquors in Marfa. He produces short videos featuring Chicken George 1236 preparing and barbecuing choice selections of meat from the company.
Zupp’s artwork shows regularly in San Antonio, San Marcos, Marfa and Marathon. Currently his work is on display at Ranch Candy in Marfa and The Spirit House tasting room in downtown Marathon. The first Friday of every month tastings are free and open to the public. To view more of his work and links to his YouTube videos visit www.GeorgeZupp.com.
By Kleo Belay