Shawn Cameron | The Real Thing


By Mark Mussari

When Shawn Cameron’s paternal grandparents rode in covered wagons along the Oregon Trail and then south to Arizona Territory in the late 1800s, they brought with them two strong yet seemingly diverse traits: a love for cattle ranching and a creative spirit. As a young girl, Cameron imbibed both of those inclinations, and they eventually merged into the basis for her own artistic expression.

Today, Cameron’s vibrant western paintings of life on the range offer elegant testament to the pioneer spirit that continues to inform her art. “My father’s family erected the oldest schoolhouse in Arizona and built the largest store in the Verde Valley,” she explains. “And on my mother’s side, they established trading posts and ran ranches.”

As a child growing up on the family ranch, Cameron discovered another interest slowly beginning to surface. “I was always drawing,” she recalls. “My first memories are of horses. That was the focus of our family. So I went out and drew horses. My right brain was just always in gear.”

On this front, Cameron was fortunate. The daily demands of ranching could have stifled her artistic tendencies, but instead her family fostered them. Her mother was a musician and an artist who nurtured these nascent talents in her children. “I never lacked for art materials,” remembers Cameron, who would take the oil painting boxes her mother gave her, sit on the riverbank, and paint. “I didn’t know what I was doing. My mother couldn’t help me a whole lot in that way, but she encouraged me,” says Cameron.

According to Cameron, artistic talents “manifested themselves tangibly” on her mother’s side. Her father had his own unique way of encouraging his daughter’s creative spirit. Riding around in the family pick-up truck, the elder Cameron would throw mental curve balls at his receptive daughter: “What would you do if this happened?” he would ask her. “How would you solve this problem?” Soon, she began to join in the game, volleying similar challenges back at her father. The mental workout had a far-reaching effect. “Those games nurtured my creativity,” she says. “Art is a series of problem-solving challenges, and that taught me to pay attention and deal with the problems facing me.”

Cameron went on to study art in high school and college, and she took classes at the Scottsdale Artists’ School and the Fechin Institute in New Mexico. Although she tried some “real jobs”—in a grocery store and a dress shop—her artistic nature would have none of it. After she married her husband, Dean, they ran the ranch and began to raise a family. Yet she continued drawing. “I was using pencils,” notes Cameron, “because I had three children and no real area to work. I could pick the pencils up, set them down, and put them away easily.”


Two notable visitors to the ranch became important mentors in her life: renowned cowboy artists Bill Owen and the late Joe Beeler, one of the founders of Cowboy Artists of America. They had come to rope horses with her husband, but once they saw her artwork, both men encouraged Cameron to continue drawing. “The fact that they started taking me seriously made me think maybe I should, too,” she says. “They were important in making me see myself as an artist.” She discovered another significant mentor in New Mexico artist Robert “Shoofly” Shufelt, whom she describes as “the first one I studied with when I became serious about pursuing art as a career.”

Eventually, she worked up the nerve to show her pencil drawings to a gallery owner in Sedona. He proffered some life-altering advice when he told her to switch to oils. Cameron recalls: “He said, ‘If you were doing oil painting at the level you’re doing pencils, I would have you in the gallery.’” At that point, she chose oils as her main medium.

Returning to the riverbanks of her youth, Cameron began to paint en plein air with a group of more accomplished artists. “That exposure was instrumental in establishing the palette and principles that I use today. Principles like abstract design, which includes strong values, light, and simplification,” she says. A few years ago, she also began sculpting, casting her first bronze in 2006; the edition nearly sold out within a year. She describes her work habits as disciplined: “I’m in the studio by 9 or 10 each morning and I usually stay there until 4 or 5 in the afternoon.”

Cameron cites certain western artists as major influences on her work. She admits to being especially attracted to the work of Frank Tenney Johnson, one of the few cowboy artists known specifically for his nocturnes. “I constantly looked at his work to learn, because his brushwork was so well thought out,” she says. To study Johnson’s technique, Cameron would move up close to and then far back from his paintings. “When I looked at his work from across a room, it had a real impact,” she notes. Cameron also mentions western painters James Reynolds and Maynard Dixon as favorites. “I’m drawn to any work of art that is well done. It doesn’t have to be western,” she adds.

Cameron defines her style as “painterly realism.” While she pays exacting attention to the details of ranch life, her brushwork is often open and loose. “Part of my work is very painterly,” she says. “Other parts are tighter, more realistic.”

She relies on her eyes and a camera to record the images that eventually transform into her pictorial slices of western life. She still paints en plein air when the mood strikes her or if she needs to capture certain lighting or moments in nature. She comments that she paints on location “to remember how to get that freshness” into her work, and she returns to these open-air studies when rendering aspects of the landscape.

“Photography comes in handy for more detailed subjects,” she admits. “Photographs are necessary if you have animals in motion or sunlight hitting from a certain direction.” Cameron also acknowledges the importance of memory for inspiration. For example, she feels a special affinity for dust: “I’m always watching how dust illuminates the reflected light of objects. A lot of that just doesn’t show up in photographs.”

Her piece ADOBE SHADOWS, depicting a white horse swishing its tail, offers a fine example of her blend of painterly effect and realistic approach. Instead of a static picture of a horse tied to a post, she creates a shimmering tension between the warm yellow and cool lavender tones that “makes the painting vibrate.” The lavender shadows beneath the horse, in the lower picture plane, repeat in the shadows dancing across the adobe. Movement occurs not only in the light illuminating the swishing tail, but also in the brush strokes, particularly across the adobe wall.

Another picture, MORNING ADJUSTMENTS, exudes an autumnal feeling in the artist’s use of golden grasses surrounding a cowboy who has dismounted from his horse to tighten a cinch. “It was October and I was riding with my friend who works for a neighboring ranch,” she recalls. “The cowboy got off his horse to adjust his saddle. And the light was just bouncing and glowing off the bushes.” Cameron employs minimal, loose brush strokes to depict much of the vegetation, adding a softened, halo-like effect around the figure. The golden grasses also emphasize the play of browns in the horse’s haunch, the saddle, and the cowboy’s coat and bat-wing chaps.

“My passion is painting my family’s life,” Cameron says of her western subjects. Her deep roots in Arizona ranching often result in critics referring to her as “the real thing,” differentiating her work from more romantic, uninformed depictions of western imagery. Cameron says she feels an even greater responsibility to be accurate because she has “the resources and the people” around her.
She worries that fewer and fewer people have a connection to genuine ranch life these days. She is also painfully aware of the increasingly transient nature of the lifestyle she depicts, a life spent fending for oneself on a ranch, facing the elements, and carving out a living. “I’m from Arizona,” says Cameron, “and ranching is all we’ve done.” And so, that life lives on in her paintings.

She is represented by Trailside Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson Hole, WY; Tierney Fine Art, Bozeman, MT.

Current & Upcoming Group Shows
Texas Art Gallery Auction, Dallas, TX, November 7; Small Works, Great Wonders, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City, OK, November 20; Mountain Oyster Show, Tucson, AZ, November 22-23; Western Classics, Trailside Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ, March 2009. C.M. Russell Art Auction, Great Falls, MT, March 18-21, 2009. Cowgirl Up!, Desert Caballeros Museum, Wickenburg, AZ, March 27-29, 2009.

Her next show is the Mountain Oyster Club Western Art Show, Tucson, AZ, November 23-January 10, 2009.

Featured in November 2008