Born Edward J. Brooks, a black man who had faced adversity all his life, he wanted a place where everyone was welcome - from immigrants to city folks who stumbled off the beaten path. An Army Ranger who fought in both the Korean and Vietnam wars, Ed Keeylocko started his own town southwest of Tucson after his cows were rejected at a local auction when it was discovered he was black.
Keeylocko was his own unique brand of rancher who understood the interplay and connection between all living things and bred his cattle accordingly. He was a U of A graduate with a degree in agriculture and was concerned about how the lack of foresight and degradation of the natural world would sustain a growing population. He was a proponent of environmental education, and built a little research library that contained out-of print books about ancient civilizations around the world. (A man after my own heart!) He considered himself to be a steward of the land as well as a cowboy.
I first learned about this remarkable man from an old episode of Arizona Illustrated and fell in love -- then, as usual, life happened. In 2018, when I heard of his passing I did an extensive web search, gathering articles and photos and watching videos of him and his life, and vowed to do a painting of him. Then the Trump War on Asylum Seekers sucked up national oxygen and my attention turned elsewhere.
Nicole Santa Cruz in the Seattle Times, 2010:
"Keeylocko was born in South Carolina in 1931. Abandoned by his mother, he was rescued by a woman who gave him the name Keeylock (he added the O later). He left home at 14 and traveled America as a hobo before serving in the Army for 23 years.
He then attended the University of Arizona, earning degrees in agriculture, because he wanted to breed aggressive, well-armed cattle that could protect themselves on the range. (“Give them back their horns,” he says.) After experiencing discrimination at a cattle auction, he decided to create his ranch.
Keeylocko’s life is as unpredictable as the Wild West. He’s an ordained minister. And he has traveled the country, giving lectures on black cowboys.
“There are people that believe that people like me only play basketball, football, dance or maybe play the banjo,” he said. “What they don’t know is, there were black cowboys long before there were white cowboys.”
His life has made him open to welcoming anyone in his town, regardless of color, or as is the case in southern Arizona, regardless of citizenship. He’s known for chasing the Border Patrol off his property.
“I tell people that Cowtown Keeylocko doesn’t choose who comes here,” he said. “That’s the real West.”
Those he welcomes include illegal immigrants who come for water — from the U.S.-Mexico border, less than 50 miles away.
On a recent afternoon, Keeylocko continued to nurse his tequila at the bar, sweating slightly. Aside from the faint hum of a fan, which didn’t provide much relief, the only sounds were insects chirping. Keeylocko’s eyes became soft...
A person has to go back to the land,” he said. “It creates thought.”
This painting came about because of the horrific chain of national events in 2020.
.My life has not been the same since.
When the triple-murders of Ahmaud, Breonna, and George Floyd slammed in one after the other, my entire life foundations crumbled. I was raised with a set of values that promoted diversity as God's Christian soldiers. Further, I had plenty of first-hand witness to Arizona's brand of bigotry. But the depth of nation-wide systemic racism revealed itself in new ways to me everywhere. It is inescapable by design-- giving me a creeping nausea in the pit of my stomach every day. I realized for the first time that America's Original Sin is still very much who we are.
Meanwhile, the Covid virus was spreading death across the country. The 45th president ridiculed everything that wasn't his idea and peddled snake oil. Unmasked faces wearing MAGA hats and battle gear and brandishing assault weapons rallied to his defense around the country. White supremacist and confederate flags flew along streets, storefronts, and from pickup trucks everywhere. But Queen Covid didn't care and claimed hundreds of thousands of American lives unabated. Conspiracy theories and vitriol flooded social media stoked by the president, igniting real-life incidents. Violence was now "Patriotism", and humanitarians were now the Enemy. They were the "Radical Left" and all dehumanizing labels were welcome.
It felt like my very core was under siege. I have lived through a number of "scares" in my time, but nothing like this. This was batshit crazy.
So I shut down my social media accounts and joined the real world again through the peace of covid sequester in my home. 2020-21 were years of inner reconstruction and outer grounding.
Here finally, after months in the making, is my vision of Ed J.B. Keeylocko. I brought out his "swamp" green eyes. Above him is his signature Blue Dog Saloon. I include his pinto horse, Jazz, who seemed to be a good fit for this painting. He was an incredible man and led an incredible life. I am sorry our paths never crossed in this world. For those who had the privilege of knowing him, I hope this portrayal of him comes close to doing him justice.
All digital files of my work are available for free to Mr. Keelocko's surviving family.