Conversation Piece

Cynthia Rigden, photo, southwest art.
Cynthia Rigden

What’s it like to be a woman working in the male-dominated genre of traditional western art? We asked Suzanne Baker, Cynthia Rigden, and Sheri Greves-Neilson about their experiences.

SWA: What drew you to western subject matter?
Suzanne Baker: I grew up on a small ranch in the Sierra foothills of California, where the main industry was raising cattle. My paintings of contemporary ranch scenes and the high Sierra landscape come from this experience.
Cynthia Rigden: I’ve always lived on a ranch, so the inspiration for my bronze horses and cattle has been close at hand.
Sheri Greves-Neilson: My pencil drawings are of traditional western ranch scenes. I first realized the impact this imagery could have at the 1978 Cowboy Artists of America show, where I saw a painting by Gordon Snidow of an old man repairing some tack in a barn—that piece really moved me.

SWA: Are collectors surprised to find that your works are created by a woman?
Baker: I sign my paintings “S. Baker” to avoid the issue; occasionally I get a reaction of surprise. Most people today realize that women can paint “macho” subjects with authority. Since women do a fair amount of cowboying now—running ranches, roping, doctoring—we can certainly paint these subjects.
Rigden: I don’t recall the issue ever coming up.
Greves-Neilson: I’ve never had any negative comments, felt left out, or been turned down because I’m a woman artist.

Sheri Greves Nelson, photo, southwest art.
Sheri Greves Nelson

SWA: Who has influenced you as an artist?
Baker: My mother was a wonderful artist and she encouraged me.
Rigden: I’ve been influenced by French animal painter and sculptor Rosa Bonheur [1822-1899].
Greves-Neilson: Painter William Whitaker, an acquaintance of my uncle’s, called me early in my career and gave me advice I still use today: work hard, stick to what you want to do, and learn from artists you admire. Another comment that had an impact on me came from Ginger Renner [see Notable Women of 1997, page 44] when she judged the American Indian and Cowboy Artists show in 1985. She took me aside and said, “Don’t stop what you’re doing.” Her words meant more to me than the gold medal I won!

SWA: What obstacles have you encountered in your career?
Baker: Many. Art is one of the hardest careers because you have to be extremely good to survive as a professional. I’ve had great determination—that’s what it takes.
Rigden: My career has been remarkably free of obstacles. I’ve stuck to business, done the work I wanted to do, and let the rest take its course.

Suzanne Baker, photo, southwest art.
Suzanne Baker

Greves-Neilson: The biggest obstacle for a woman is balancing a family with a passion for art.

Featured in November 1997