There is nothing about Nancy Cawdrey that hints at the stereotype of the tortured artist.
One of the best-known and most beloved contemporary Western artists in the country, Cawdrey exudes enthusiasm, spirit and humor. Through the years she has painted her brilliantly vibrant vision of the West, its characters, flora, fauna and, in particular, her beloved Glacier National Park, with the mission to celebrate its beauty, promote its preservation and educate the world about its wild places.
An extraordinarily successful artist, Cawdrey began developing her ambitious Forever Glacier project about four years ago as a lasting legacy to Glacier Park. She is just now putting the finishing brushstrokes on the last of the exhibit’s dye-on-silk paintings.
Cawdrey took a break from her studio recently to talk with the Daily Inter Lake in her family’s distinctive boutique art gallery and lounge, Cypress Yard, in Whitefish.
“We live so close to Glacier and for years we took teenagers there from our wilderness boarding school in Thompson Falls. Glacier Park is a special place, a healing place, a wonderful place.” Cawdrey said. “How about I paint the large mammals of Glacier Park because I really like doing big, colorful stuff — the energy, the size, the wonder of these big animals.”
The extensive project features 25 pieces of art — 18 large silk paintings honoring the large mammals of the park, four additional paintings featuring small mammals, and three of Cawdrey’s previous works: her well-known painting “Going-To-The Sun,” borrowed from the Hockaday Museum of Art’s permanent collection; and two pieces she did as a Glacier Park Centennial artist in 2010, “Where Earth Meets Sky” and “The Crown Jewels.”
Cawdrey, together with her husband Steve and son Morgan, have collaborated with the Glacier Park Conservancy, the park’s nonprofit fundraising partner, along with corporate sponsors, foundations and private parties to help create Forever Glacier, which will become a three- to five-year traveling, educational exhibit.
“I feel so grateful for all the sponsors who’ve stepped up and partnered with me to help in this legacy project,” Cawdrey said. “It seems a wonderful thing to share.”
The Cawdrey team is scheduling the exhibit to tour regionally and across the country, as well as designing mugs, T-shirts and more to be sold in museum gift shops. The Forever Glacier paintings will also be available as limited edition, signed giclee prints.
The exhibit will debut at the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls and will be on display from June 6 to Aug. 30. The Booth Museum of Western Art, which houses the largest exhibition space of Western art in the world and is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, has also reserved the exhibit. The Cawdreys also hope to exhibit in Flathead Valley Community College’s new College Center once the building is completed.
Cawdrey is the only professional Western artist whose primary medium is dye-on-silk. She is largely self-taught in the 4,000-year-old Chinese art, which she first discovered from an artist she met 30 years ago while on a camping trip with Steve in Hawaii. Though her college studies focused on journalism, her art career began as a young student studying oil painting at the Sorbonne in Paris and watercolor in England where she and Steve were married.
Cawdrey lived abroad for much of her childhood as well, both in Europe and the Middle East. Her father, an attaché for U.S. military intelligence, worked for U.S. embassies in the Middle East and Europe.
Cawdrey had been doing watercolor for 25 years, a medium she loved. She was naturally drawn to silk painting for its element of surprise. Although she starts a painting with a plan, her paintings done on silk transform themselves as they are created. The user-friendly silk dyes are transparent, so Cawdrey is able to layer them upon one another for a unique effect. At approximately 30- by 40-inches, each large mammal painting requires four to six weeks to complete. Her subjects include the grizzly, moose, bighorn sheep, bison (considered a historical animal to the park), coyote and a pack of wolves, to name a few.
“Probably the most fun one to paint was the coyote,” Cawdrey said. “It’s leaping and full of color.”
Her art has been inspired by the late John Nieto.
“Coyote was kind of his thing — colorful, expressive,” she said. “The day I finished it (her coyote painting) I heard he had died.”
The four small mammal paintings may have been the toughest to finish.
“There are so many small mammals!” Cawdrey said. “Just the species of mice … it’s just nuts.”
These four paintings are represented amid the four seasons and four habitats of Glacier Park – Alpine Meadow, Old Growth Forest, Prairie and Grassland, and Riverbottom.
The Cawdreys are also developing an educational piece as an integral part of Forever Glacier.
“We came to the realization that if we’re going to do a museum tour we need to make it interactive and we brought Morgan (the Cawdreys’ son) into it.”
“I wanted to explore the major five senses with this exhibit to give people who don’t have the park in their backyard as much of the experience as possible,” Morgan said.
Morgan hiked multiple times in all four seasons with noted videographer and editor Nico Heitert to create a 360-degree video that will depict the park’s four distinct habitats. The video will be narrated by well-known musician and Blackfeet tribal member Jack Gladstone and feature his daughter Mariah Gladstone signing in the Blackfeet language.
Educational sensory pieces will be incorporated, exploring the four habitats and five senses — animal skulls, paw prints, pelts, scat, scents, sounds and more, with the goal of encouraging people to interact with the exhibit and give them as much of the Glacier experience as possible.
Once the tour is completed, the Cawdreys hope Forever Glacier will find a permanent home at the Glacier Conservancy where it will inspire future generations.
“The message is not only about Glacier Park, preserving habitat and wild places, but it’s also about encouraging young people, any people, to be as big as you can be,” Cawdrey said. “You don’t have to set out about doing creative things to make a living, but do creative things.”
Cawdrey, who possesses a deep love for lifelong learning, is looking forward to experimenting and exploring new painting techniques once the Forever Glacier exhibit launches. She’s particularly hoping to paint another place near and dear to her heart.
“I’ve been dying to paint Notre Dame,” Cawdrey said. “I was an art student there for two years and I don’t know how many times I photographed, sketched and did little studies of Notre Dame … and it’s gone. The spire’s down and they think it might crumble when they remove the scaffolding.
“I want to do things that push the learning curve for me. The exploration part of painting is absolutely what has kept me at it. No question about it.”
Entertainment Editor Carol Marino may be reached at 758-4440 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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