Sheila Cottrell | Pioneer Painter

AUTUMN, OIL, 24 X 30.
AUTUMN, OIL, 24 X 30.

By Devon Jackson

Sheila Cottrell’s roots in the West go back—way back. In the early 1800s, her ancestors, the Wells family, settled in Texas at a time when the West was still being won. They later went by wagon train to Arizona, before it was a state. The Old West is a part of Cottrell’s family history. It is a time and place that she knows well and paints with reverence.

Most of her paintings of the Old West come directly from family lore. WELLS TREK WEST—1900 shows their covered wagons crossing the West Texas plains as the family heads to Arizona in search of a place to homestead. FOGGY MORNING CROSSING depicts the wagon train crossing the Pecos River. “I do a lot of those paintings just because of the stories. It’s my way of preserving our family history,” says Cottrell from her home in Tucson, AZ.

Born in 1949 in Willcox, AZ, Cottrell and her twin sister spent their early years on their family’s ranch. It wasn’t that far from the legendary town of Tombstone, where her grandfather once served as deputy sheriff. When she was 5, her father sold the land and moved the family to Tucson, where he worked as an engineer for Hughes Aircraft. The family grew to include another pair of twins and a set of triplets—all girls! Undaunted by the fact that he had only daughters, Cottrell’s father taught them how to camp and shoot and ride.

As much time as she spent outdoors, Cottrell also remembers that she was always drawing or painting. “When I was growing up, we had nothing but calendars on the walls—no paintings or posters anywhere. My mom said, ‘Oh, no, we can’t afford to have paintings,’” Cottrell recalls. “But I wanted pretty paintings on the walls.” She grew up determined to fill those blank spaces.

During her high school years, Cottrell drew so many portraits of her girlfriends’ boyfriends that she started charging 50 cents apiece for them. “My friends changed their boyfriends so often that I made some pretty good money,” she recalls. At the University of Arizona, however, her instructors gave her poor grades if she did anything close to representational work. She stayed only a couple of semesters.

Then school and art drifted away and life took over—she married, had three daughters, and later divorced. Cottrell realized that the few paintings she had been doing—portraits and some still lifes, which a girlfriend had sold in local bookstores and beauty salons—would not be enough to support her and her three girls. “I didn’t want to just survive,” explains Cottrell, “and because selling was the only thing I could do that would generate enough income for a comfortable life, I went into commercial real estate.” And when she could find the time, she’d paint.

As a way to remind herself what she really wanted to do, she always carried a box of crayons in her briefcase. “I love the smell of crayons, and every time I opened my briefcase, it would remind me what I was working toward,” she says. “When the crayons lost their smell, I’d get a fresh box.”

In 1984, when Cottrell was in her mid-30s, she took a weeklong painting workshop with well-known western artist James Reynolds. “Taking that workshop really got me serious about my painting,” she says. She continued to study with Reynolds, who lived in Phoenix and taught at the Scottsdale Artists’ School, a two-hour drive from Tucson. Her sisters helped out by babysitting her daughters, often for extended periods. Cottrell’s real estate job afforded her the flexibility to take off days at a time to paint. “Real estate was the ideal job for what I was doing,” she says. “I was my own boss, and I made enough money that I could control my own time.”

Reynolds at first didn’t see how a single mother of three with a job selling hotels and supermarkets would have what it takes to become a full-time artist. “It was quite a while before James realized how serious I was. But I was determined,” says Cottrell. “Once he did realize it, he was very flattering about my portraits, and I started to hear what he was telling other people—other artists—about my work. He has been a good supporter and mentor to me.”



It wasn’t until 1992, however—eight years after that first workshop—that Cottrell felt she was good enough to sign her own name to her work. Until then she’d used a pseudonym. By 1995, she was spending half her painting time at Reynolds’ studio. “We had our easels back to back, and we’d paint that way for sometimes 10 hours straight,” says Cottrell.

In 1998 her work was accepted by several well-respected galleries, and one of her portraits was juried into the Oil Painters of America annual show. Cottrell paints exclusively in oil, because, she says, “It’s so sensuous and rich and luminous. Plus, I love the smell.”

What motivates her to paint, and what she strives for in her paintings, is beauty. “Everything in my life revolves around beauty,” says Cottrell. “‘Beauty is the only thing worth living for,’ is what Agatha Christie said, and I agree totally. My attitude is, if it’s beautiful, I want to paint it.”
Cottrell has no difficulty finding beautiful subjects to inspire her. She finds them in scenes of the Old West, in the western landscape, in contemporary ranch life, and in the rich culture of Native Americans. All of these are fodder for her compositions. “I prefer painting historic Indians and am fascinated with the Apaches and their culture,” says the artist. For her source material she relies heavily on old photographs she purchases from historical societies in Utah, Oklahoma, and elsewhere in the West. “In representational paintings you have to get it correct, so I do a huge amount of research,” she notes. “Sometimes it takes me as long to research and compose a painting as it does to paint it.”

As assiduous as she is in making sure the details are historically accurate, Cottrell admits that she has a tendency to romanticize the West (“I love Will James and Zane Grey,” she confesses). But it is romanticizing with a purpose—not borne out of the desire to prettify the past, but as a means of better understanding who she is and where she came from. “It’s a way of maintaining a connection to my roots,” says Cottrell, who, in her role as family historian, writes up the old family stories that have been passed down through the years and publishes them in a newsletter she sends out to more than 200 relatives. “Painting the Old West is seeing what that my father saw, and what his father saw. Through my painting I’m coming to understand what my ancestors went through.

“I particularly like the historical aspect of pioneer women,” says Cottrell. “I paint them because so many of their stories have gone untold.” In PRAIRIE DUST, for example, a little girl clings to her mother’s skirt, turning her head away from the blowing grit as her mother stoically looks into the distance. Cottrell captures the woman’s strength and resilience. “I prefer to have the viewer make up their own story as to what’s going on in the painting—as to what that woman is thinking,” says the artist.

Some of her paintings are straight out of the stories in the family newsletter, such as LADRONES DE LA NOCHE (THIEVES OF THE NIGHT), a dramatic rendition of the night that two sombrero-wearing rustlers made off with about 30 of her grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s horses. For most of her historical scenes, as well as her paintings of contemporary ranch life, she enlists models and more than a few of her cousins. “They’re lean and lanky cowboys, and they love posing for me,” laughs Cottrell.

While steeped in western history and lore, Cottrell also looks forward to one day having shows based solely on her paintings of France and Italy, two countries she’s visited and painted often. What interests her in Europe is what interests her about the West—the history. “What’s fascinating to me about Europe is how old everything is—all that history, all the old buildings. In a modern city like Tucson there are no buildings over 100 years old. That’s why I like painting scenes from the Old West.

“To me,” she continues, “the West is a way of life. People are experiencing a nostalgia for it again. People want to remember a time that was more romantic and less complicated—like the West I grew up in.”

Devon Jackson has also written for Sports Illustrated, The New York Times Magazine, and Outside.

She is currently in a group show at
Trailside Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ, October 13-25; her next upcoming show is the Mountain Oyster Club Western Art Show, Tucson, AZ,  November 23-January 10, 2009.

Sheila is represented by Trailside Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY;  Big Horn Galleries, Tubac, AZ, and Cody, WY.

Featured in October 2008