Portfolio | Feminine & Tough

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

Six painters from across the West portray cowgirls at home on the range

Rough-Cut Jewel, oil, 12 x 12.Karen Bonnie

An art teacher in high school once suggested to Karen Bonnie that she try to draw something other than horses. Bonnie dismissed the idea. She had been drawing horses obsessively since she was old enough to hold a pencil and didn’t intend to stop. A few years later when she got married, one of the first things she did was buy a horse. She continued to draw horses in her spare time but didn’t really know anyone connected to the painting world. That changed one day in 1998 when artists Linda and Dean St. Clair stopped by the gallery she owned in Abiquiu, NM, where Bonnie was showing her hand-tinted photographs. “The St. Clairs inspired me and helped me get a start,” she recalls.

Today, Bonnie lives on an 82-acre ranch near the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado. “I get to do what every kid dreams of—ride in the mountains and chase cows,” she says. Bonnie is always on the lookout for cowboys and cowgirls to model for her paintings, often capturing them engaged in their daily routines. “I am trying to convey the simplicity and beauty of this life,” she says. “It’s a lot about the spiritual connection to animals, mainly horses. It’s a connection that goes beyond words.”

The artist’s work is on view next month in Cowgirl Up! at the Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg, AZ. Bonnie is represented by Montana Trails Gallery, Bozeman, MT; Visions West Galleries, Livingston and Bozeman, MT; Gallery Elite, Scottsdale, AZ, and Carmel, CA; Austin Galleries, Austin, TX; and Spirits in the Wind Gallery, Golden, CO.

Saddle Weary, oil, 16 x 12.Bonnie Conrad

When it comes to inspiration, Utah artist Bonnie Conrad doesn’t have to go far to find natural beauty—she lives on the side of a mountain with a spectacular view of the Utah Valley. She is fond of describing the act of creating art as intoxicating: “I don’t drink, but I have been pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving on the back roads near Jackson. The truth is I was intoxicated, but on the scenery!”

Like many western artists, Conrad grew up surrounded by horses and has ridden throughout her life. While raising six children, she began taking art classes. She was 40 when she entered her first art competition and walked away with the top prize, and that was enough to validate that she was on the right path. Over the years, she has come to one conclusion about ranching women: They are what she calls “the shadow backbone of the West,” working hard both inside the home raising children and outside with the animals. These days, Conrad concentrates on painting western subjects that make people feel good. “I want my art to lift the human spirit,” she explains. “So I try to paint the finer side of life.”

Conrad’s works are on view at the C.M. Russell Auction of Original Western Art in Great Falls, MT, this month and in a show featuring members of the American Academy of Women Artists at Piñon Fine Art in Denver, CO, in May. She is represented by Navarro Gallery, Sedona, AZ; Mountain Trails Gallery, Jackson, WY; Sorrel Sky Gallery, Durango, CO; Williams Fine Art, Salt Lake City, UT; and www.bonnieconrad.com.

Cowgirl Blues, oil, 28 x 22.Ann Hanson

Ann Hanson has spent most of her life in the country, far from the big-city bustle and brouhaha. These days, she lives and works in Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains region, about 70 miles east of Casper. Surrounded by ranches and the open range, she has plenty of material for her depictions of the West—the glory of its land and people.

Hanson studied drawing in college and continued to paint, usually in pastels, while she married and raised her three children. As her children grew older, she switched to oils. Hanson describes herself as a chronic observer—she paints everything from up-close-and-personal portraits of horses to cowgirl sharpshooters in action, barreling through obstacle courses while shooting at balloon targets. Her models are real-life ranchers, and her lush color palette and incredibly detailed paintings reflect her love of the western life. “I am basically painting for myself,” Hanson says. “If no one bought them, I would still paint them and give them all away.”

Unfortunately for collectors, Hanson doesn’t have to give her paintings away. An established artist for more than 20 years, her works are on view in an annual show at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, WY. This month she participates in a group show at Trailside Galleries in Scottsdale, AZ, and in April her works are featured in Cowgirl Up! at the Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg, AZ. Hanson is represented by Trailside Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY, and Big Horn Galleries, Cody, WY, and Tubac, AZ.

It's Hot, acrylic, 28 x 22.Mike Tabor

Painter Mike Tabor lives on a ranch on the edge of the scenic Texas Hill Country. The 360-acre spread has been in his family for decades—he’s a third-generation rancher and cattleman—and he advises other ranchers in the area when he isn’t painting in his studio. While Tabor may be inspired by the works of Charles M. Russell when it comes to subject matter, his artistic style has embraced abstract expressionism, Pop art, and impressionism at different times in his career. When people ask him to categorize his style, he enjoys telling them, “It’s post-modern western art.” Tabor goes on to explain that he and a cadre of contemporary artists are trying to stretch the boundaries of traditional western imagery. “We appreciate the traditional, but we see the evolution of the genre,” he says. Primarily working in acrylics, the artist also creates assemblages and works in pencil.

A former bareback rider and team roper in rodeos, Tabor says his creative mission is to capture ranching moments that are interesting to him without thinking about what will sell. “A lot of my paintings may start out with subject matter being the prime concern, but sometimes the image becomes secondary,” he explains. “I may decide to focus on light, space, or color.” Often his work is more about the background. He may see an intriguing color or texture in a magazine and use it as inspiration for his next piece. “Sometimes I only know what the background is going to look like,” he says. “I have no idea how the cowgirl is going to look.” Tabor is represented by Monticello Fine Arts Gallery, Fort Worth, TX, and www.miketabor.net.

20th Century Fox, oil, 36 x 24.Joe Netherwood

When Joe Netherwood was growing up in Virginia, his father took him to a movie every week. The local theater usually presented a western film starring John Wayne or Randolph Scott, he recalls. At home, the young Netherwood saw even more cowboys on television, including Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and Hopalong Cassidy. “They were my heroes,” he says. While the big- and small-screen images of life on the range left powerful impressions, it wasn’t until he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and was sent to basic training in Texas that he actually saw a slice of the West.

Today, Netherwood lives in Scottsdale, AZ, and paints western subjects exclusively. He arrived at his fine-art career through a circuitous route that included a stint as a stand-up comic—he was once a finalist in a competition where he was beaten by an up-and-coming comedian named Ray Romano. He also enjoyed a successful career as a commercial illustrator in Pennsylvania.

Netherwood’s oil paintings capture both the contemporary and historic West, which he has cherished for a lifetime. “I try to convey the emotions people feel through depicting their facial expressions,” he says. In addition to legendary western painters such as Charles M. Russell and Frederic Remington, Netherwood turns to illustrators Dean Cornwell and Norman Rockwell for inspiration. He is a regular participant in the Phippen Museum Western Art Show and Sale in Prescott, AZ, and his work was featured in the award-winning 2004 movie Sideways. Netherwood is represented by Hill Gallery & Sculpture Park, Sandy, UT, and www.joenetherwood.com.

Companions, pencil, 16 x 11.Sheri Greves-Neilson

California painter Sheri Greves-Neilson has ridden horses since she was 8, regularly galloping bareback with a friend on a neighbor’s aging steed. Through her high-school years, she recalls saving every penny for a chance to ride her favorite horses at stables near her home. For as long as she can remember, Greves-Neilson has relished drawing horses, too. When her children were growing up, she made a regular practice of staying up until 2 a.m. to portray the four-legged creatures in watercolors.

These days, the artist lives on a ranch about an hour north of Sacramento, where she and her husband grow blueberries and almonds. They share the fertile acreage with an array of animals, including donkeys, horses, cats, and a dog. Greves-Neilson considers herself a western portrait painter who is interested in the ranchers of today’s West. But she is most intrigued by a specific aspect of ranching life—the relationships between people and their animals. “The interaction between a man and his dog or a woman and her horse is deep,” she explains. “I want to freeze it. That deep love we have for animals is profound.”

Greves-Neilson does more than just study and draw horses; she regularly signs on for cattle drives, too, helping neighbors with their herds and sleeping on the ground under the stars for six days. “It’s heaven,” she says. “This is my European health-spa vacation!” Greves-Neilson is participating in Cowgirl Up!, a group exhibition that opens in April at the Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg, AZ. She is represented by Judith Hale Gallery, Los Olivos, CA; Chablis Gallery, Placerville, CA; and Toh-Atin Gallery, Durango, CO.

Featured in “Portfolio: Cowgirls” March 2006