Descended from Irish immigrants on his father’s side and Dutch farmers on his mother’s, Ken Riley was born in Waverly, Missouri. While music was an important part of his formative years, art proved to be Riley’s true calling, and from an early age both his parents and teachers encouraged this interest. After high school he attended the Kansas City Art Institute where he studied drawing with Thomas Hart Benton. Riley later earned a scholarship to attend the Art Students League and Grand Central Art School in New York, where he studied under Harvey Dunn—one of America’s most influential artists and teachers.
During World War II, Riley showcased his talents as a combat artist while stationed on the USS Middleton, an attack transport ship that saw a great deal of action in the Pacific Theater. After the war, he spent the next twenty-five years making a name for himself as a much sought after illustrator for major magazines including The Saturday Evening Post, National Geographic, Reader’s Digest, McCalls, Redbook and Life magazine, among many others. Riley’s excursions to Utah and South Dakota’s Badlands, combined with an interest in western history, fueled his desire to paint western subjects and ultimately to live in the western United States. He moved to Tucson, Arizona, in the early 1970’s and began researching pre-reservation Native Americans. Utilizing the original journals of western adventurers, artists, and others, Riley developed his narratives from actual events. Using an abstract approach and a stunning, sophisticated palette, he focused his art on the history and culture of the American west; notably the life, culture, and philosophies of the Apache, Mandan, and Plains tribes. Using rich layers of color and dramatic design, his paintings offer not only a literal story, but also an allegorical and spiritual interpretation of Native American life and culture.
In 1973 Riley became a charter member of the National Academy of Western Art, and in 1982 was voted into the Cowboy Artists of America, receiving the prestigious Stetson Award in 1987, 1988, 1989, and 1991. He was also awarded Gold Medals in 1984, 1988, 1989, 1993, and Silver Medals in 1983, 1987, and 1995. Riley won the coveted Prix De West Award in 1995. His original works are displayed at major venues and museums across the nation including the White House, the Smithsonian Institute, The Air Force Academy, and the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana.
In a preface for the catalog produced for Ken Riley’s 2003 retrospective show at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, museum director and writer Michael Duty noted, “On the most literal level, Ken’s paintings are grounded in a specific time period, but on a deeper level, they are timeless. They reflect his own deep sense of humanity and, like all great art, they connect the viewer to the world at large. They allow or even prompt each of us to step into another world and in doing so, we are able to contemplate our own nature and environment from a new perspective. Riley’s paintings capture both a strong and dramatic narrative sense, but all have a symbolic presence as well. His unique sense of design, use of color and choice of subject all combine to convey a whole world of meaning at once.”