Nancy Cawdrey | The Rich Pageant

Nancy Cawdrey serves up the Wild West with a silk twist

By Todd Wilkinson

If one were to hear only a brief verbal description of Nancy Cawdreyand her artwork—that she is a silk painter of Wild West motifs from Bigfork, MT—one would almost certainly get the wrong impression. Silk painting, after all, connotes an ancient, somewhat prosaic medium from the Orient, commanding an understated, quiet elegance but appealing to only a narrow fold of practitioners and patrons. And as for artists who hail from rural Montana and paint on silk, well, let’s just say there’s a perception, among some, that only provincial art comes out of the hinterlands.

But Cawdrey’s paintings are none of that. Her portraits and landscapes are sensual and bold, evocative, uplifting, and distinctly contemporary in their flair. They reflect the expansive vision of an artist who lives in an out-of-the-way corner of the Rockies by choice but who daily draws upon the rich cultures of France, England, and the Middle East. An internationalist at heart, Cawdrey uses German brushes to stroke French dyes across Chinese silk. In design and subject matter, her works exude a pageantry that seizes one’s attention, a maturity that will not let the eye drift away easily. She gives the refined tradition of silk painting a more rambunctious edge, as if Paul Cezanne and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec had wandered together into a 19th-century tent housing Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Like Toulouse-Lautrec, Cawdrey is a romantic who delights in the symbolic power of the myth. Cowboys and cowgirls, creatures from the forest, and grand vistas form a mythology of the American West, she says, that is larger than life.

When people encounter Cawdrey’s work for the first time, they are smitten with its vibrancy and intrigued by the artist’s ability to take an age-old process and give it fresh meaning in the modern world, says Melody Johnson of Settlers West, which represents Cawdrey’s work in its Contemporary Fine Art and Graphics Gallery. “Silk painting in the American West is not done an awful lot,” Johnson says. “People associate it with ancient China, so to transfer it into western culture using western themes is somewhat unusual. But when we first introduced Nancy’s work to our gallery, collectors were immediately taken with it. It didn’t take any time for Nancy to build a following.”

Nancy Cawdrey serves up the Wild West with a silk twist

Born in Fort Benning, GA, in 1948, Cawdrey was gifted with parents who loved to travel. Her father worked for the U.S. government at various foreign embassy posts around Europe and the Middle East. At 17, Cawdrey, who is conversant in French, German, and Italian, enrolled in art classes at American University in Paris. In the evenings and on weekends she received studio instruction from French painters at the Sorbonne. She made numerous side trips as well to the Louvre, the Prado, and the National Gallery on the other side of the English Channel. It was a heady time to be young and impres-sionable, she says. “I saw the best of the best, and it was daunting.”

From an early age, Cawdrey says, she had a natural inclination for hard lines and soft edges in her compositions—visual elements that continue to distinguish her work. In Europe and during tours through Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, her mind’s eye was imprinted with patterns flowing from Persian rugs, elaborate tiled mosaics, and the architectural shapes of mosques. Later, after she married her husband, Steve, the couple lived for a time in a small village in southern England where Cawdrey pursued water-color with vigor, influenced by the British masters who painted at the turn of the last century.

Even while Cawdrey was still living in Europe, long before she set foot in Montana, she was intrigued by the mere sound of the state’s name as it rolled off her tongue. Several geographic diver-sions ensued, however, before she and her husband finally settled there. And her career in art was put on hold during the years when the couple oversaw a residential program for troubled youth. Along the way, though, she took painting classes from R.S. Riddick in Scottsdale, AZ (she says she owes a debt of gratitude to the Cowboy Artists of America organization, of which Riddick is a member). When the decision was made to embrace painting again full time, she had both enthusiasm and a stronger sense of direction.

Nancy Cawdrey serves up the Wild West with a silk twist

After working on canvas and cotton, with watercolor, gouache, acrylic, and oil, Cawdrey dis-covered silk by accident while vacationing in Hawaii. She saw an artist’s portrayal of a petroglyph on silk, and the color seemed to leap from the fabric. Suddenly she realized that a silk surface made watercolor painting, by com-parison, look almost flat. “Silk is the perfect color media,” she says.

With silk, there are three primary weaves—plain, twill, and satin—which come in a variety of weights and textures. Over the years, Cawdrey has experimented with a variety of surfaces to achieve her desired transparent effect. Fine chiffon, or georgette, is used for both paintings and scarves; crepe de Chine, which for Cawdrey holds pigments well, is often preferred for paintings with deep color or to achieve the look of pastels; and rougher douppioni is employed if an artist wants to insinuate texture or has ambitions of turning the fabric into clothing. “I’m just astounded by how many kinds of silk there are,” she says, noting that for western scenes her first choice is crepe de Chine because the lines appear cleaner and stronger.

Cawdrey’s experience with watercolor proved a useful introduction to painting on silk. “It takes many layers of dye to get the color effect you want on silk,” she says. To build up a dark green in a shadowy area, for example, might require 30 applications. The irony is that as deep and soothing as the color is, when the painting is exposed to backlight, the surface glistens in an almost ethereal way. Cawdrey’s command takes silk where batik can never go.

Before he arrived in the United States and opened his Santa Fe art gallery, which represents Cawdrey’s work, Houshang Youdim was exposed to the works of ancient silk masters in his native land. He therefore has a high standard for the art form, he says, but Cawdrey exceeds it in every way. “Chinese silk painting is a superb old tradition, but Nancy has learned to completely manipulate the medium, and she can create anything she wants without any effort,” he says, praising her blend of color and the details of her borders that enhance the beauty of each piece. “She is, for all practical matters, one of the most unique artists I’ve seen in a long, long time.”

A few years after Cawdrey embraced silk painting, her art took a sassy turn that has landed her where she is today. She was tapped to play the lead role of Annie Oakley in a local com-munity theater production of Annie, Get Your Gun. As Cawdrey rehearsed the role made famous by the great stage crooner Ethel Merman, she began to discover her own inner voice. She became more “spirited” as the singing part left her emboldened to expand boundaries, she says. Color began bursting from her palette as if it were an erupting rainbow. “I had one guy come into our gallery in Bigfork,” she recalls with a laugh. “He didn’t know I was the artist whose work was on the wall, and he said, ‘Gee, this lady isn’t afraid of color.’” Cawdrey heard that observation with pride. Indeed, she loves to use color in a surreal way, finding value and contrast with shades that seldom would be considered by other artists.

Cawdrey began portraying cowgirls on horseback, she says, as a tribute to her Texas grandmother, Stella. “Nancy lives the West,” says Settlers West’s Johnson. “She has an inter-national background, but her family roots are in Texas, Arizona, and Montana.” J. Michael Dady and Kristi Skordahl, husband-and-wife attorneys from St. Paul, MN, commissioned Cawdrey to portray them on their quarter horses so they would have a constant reminder of cowboy life at their ranch in South Dakota. Cawdrey incorporated markings from their horses and whimsically conveyed the personalities of her human subjects. The finished work is a perfect marriage, they say, of their individual tastes in art. “My husband is into more traditional realism, and I like works that are more stylistic and modern,” Skordahl says. “Nancy’s work gives us common ground.”

Nancy Cawdrey serves up the Wild West with a silk twist

Another couple saw an advertisement for a Cawdrey work featuring an appaloosa and booked a flight to Santa Fe to find it at Houshang’s Gallery. “Our decision to buy the piece was a quick one,” says the wife. “My husband and I spend a lot of time outdoors, and this work represents everything we love about the West. It just glows. We have quite a bit of traditional art, but seeing this convinced us to consider acquiring a work in another medium.”

Today, Cawdrey has no idea where all the attention is leading. She and Steve, a retired school headmaster, and their teenage son, Morgan, live in a new house in Bigfork with a woodsy, open-air studio that overlooks Fox Creek Slough. The wild marsh flanks the Flathead River and is encircled by mountains. On mornings when the mist rises from the water and the tall grasses are silhouetted against the river birch, Cawdrey is reminded of France. Indeed, her international sensibilities are never far away. Like a spice trader who has spent her life gathering a cupboard full of exotic flavors, Cawdrey’s palette makes for a moveable, colorful feast.


Cawdrey is represented by Settlers West Galleries, Tucson, AZ, and Houshang’s Gallery, Santa Fe, NM.

Featured in December 2002